The Queen of the Night

by Alexander Chee


“This book is a glorious performance . . . Enveloping, seductive.” —Karen Russell 
 
From a writer praised by Junot Díaz as “the fire, in my opinion, and the light,” a mesmerizing novel that follows one woman’s rise from circus rider to courtesan to world-renowned diva 
 


  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780618663026
  • ISBN-10: 0618663029
  • Pages: 576
  • Publication Date: 02/02/2016
  • Carton Quantity: 12

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About the Book
About the Author
Excerpts
Reviews
  • About the Book

    National Bestseller 

     

    “This book is a glorious performance . . . Enveloping, seductive.” —Karen Russell 

     

    From a writer praised by Junot Díaz as “the fire, in my opinion, and the light,” a mesmerizing novel that follows one woman’s rise from circus rider to courtesan to world-renowned diva 

     

    Lilliet Berne is a sensation of the Paris Opera, a legendary soprano with every accolade except an original role, every singer’s chance at immortality. When one is finally offered to her, she realizes with alarm that the libretto is based on a hidden piece of her past. Only four could have betrayed her: one is dead, one loves her, one wants to own her. And one, she hopes, never thinks of her at all. 

     

    As she mines her memories for clues, she recalls her life as an orphan who left the American frontier for Europe and was swept up into the glitzy, gritty world of Second Empire Paris. In order to survive, she transformed herself from hippodrome rider to courtesan, from empress’s maid to debut singer, all the while weaving a complicated web of romance, obligation, and political intrigue.  

     

    Featuring a cast of characters drawn from history, The Queen of the Night follows Lilliet as she moves ever closer to the truth behind the mysterious opera and the role that could secure her reputation -- or destroy her with the secrets it reveals. 

     

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  • About the Author
  • Excerpts

    One 

      

    When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands. He is perhaps a demon or a god in disguise, offering you a chance at either the fulfillment of a dream or a trap for the soul. A comic element ?— ?the soprano arrives in the wrong dress ?— ?and it decides her fate. 

        The year was 1882. The palace was the Luxembourg Palace; the ball, the Sénat Bal, held at the beginning of autumn. It was still warm, and so the garden was used as well. I was the soprano. 

        I was Lilliet Berne. 

      

    The dress was a Worth creation of pink taffeta and gold silk, three pink flounces that belled out from a bodice embroidered in a pattern of gold wings. A net of gold-ribbon bows covered the skirt and held the flounces up at the hem. The fichu seemed to clasp me from behind as if alive ?— ?how had I not noticed? At home it had not seemed so garish. I nearly tore it off and threw it to the floor. 

        I’d paid little attention as I’d dressed that evening, unusual for me, and so I now paused as I entered, for the mirror at the entrance showed to me a woman I knew well, but in a hideous dress. As if it had changed as I’d sat in the carriage, transforming from what I had thought I’d put on into this. 

        In the light of my apartment I had thought the pink was darker; the gold more bronze; the bows smaller, softer; the effect more Italian. It was not, though, and here in the ancient mirrors of the Luxembourg Palace, under the blazing chandeliers, I saw the truth. 

        There were a few of us who had our own dressmaker’s forms at Worth’s for fitting us when we were not in Paris, and I was one, but perhaps he had forgotten me, confused me with someone else or her daughter. It would have been a very beautiful dress, say, for a very young girl from the Loire. Golden hair and rosy cheeks, pink lipped and fair. Come to Paris and I will get you a dress, her Parisian uncle might have said. And then we will go to a ball. It was that sort of dress. 

        Everything not of the dress was correct. The woman in the mirror was youthful but not a girl, dark hair parted and combed close to the head, figure good, posture straight, and waist slim. My skin had become very pale during the Siege of Paris some years before and never changed back, but this had become chic somehow, and I always tried to be grateful for it. 

        My carriage had already driven off to wait for me, the next guests arriving. If I called for my driver, the wait to leave would be as long as the wait to arrive, perhaps longer, and I would be there at the entrance, compelled to greet everyone arriving, which would be an agony. A footman by the door saw my hesitation at the mirror and tilted his head toward me, as if to ask after my trouble. I decided the better, quicker escape for now was to enter and hide in the garden until I could leave, and so I only smiled at him and made my way into the hall as he nodded proudly and shouted my name to announce me. 

        Lilliet Berne, La Générale! 

        Cheers rang out and all across the room heads turned; the music stopped and then began again, the orchestra now performing the refrain from the Jewel Song aria from Faust to honor my recent performances in the role of Marguerite. I looked over to see the director salute to me, bowing deeply before turning back to continue. The crowd began to applaud, and so I paused and curtsied to them even as I hoped to move on out of the circle of their agonizing scrutiny. 

        At any other time, I would have welcomed this. Instead, I nearly groaned into my awful dress. 

        The applause deepened, and as they began to cheer again, I stayed a moment longer. For I was their creature. Lilliet Berne, La Générale, newly returned to Paris after a year spent away, the Falcon soprano whose voice was so delicate it was rumored she endangered it even by speaking, her silences as famous as her performances. This voice was said to turn arias into spells, hymns into love songs, simple requests into commands, my suitors driven to despair in every country I visited, but perhaps especially here. 

        In the Paris press, they wrote stories of me constantly. I was receiving and rejecting gifts of incomprehensible splendor; men were leaving their wives to follow me; princes were arriving bearing ancient family jewels, keys to secret apartments, secret estates. I was unbearably kind or unbelievably cruel, more beautiful than a woman could be or secretly hideous, supernaturally pale or secretly mulatto, or both, the truth hidden under a plaster of powder. I was innocent or I was the devil unleashed, I had nearly caused wars, I had kept them from happening. I was never in love, I had never loved, I was always in love. Each performance could be my last, each performance had been my last, the voice was true, the voice was a fraud. 

        The voice, at least, was true. 

        In my year away, the theaters that had once thrilled me, La Scala in Milan, La Monnaie in Brussels, the Mariinsky in Saint Petersburg, no longer excited me as they once did. I stayed always in the apartments given over to the company singers, and soon it seemed as if the rooms were a single place that stretched the length of Europe and opened onto its various capitals. 

        The details of my roles had become the only details of my life. Onstage, I was the druidic priestess, the Hebrew slave in Egypt, the Parisian courtesan dying of consumption, the beautiful orphan who sang as she walked in her sleep, falling into and out of trouble and never waking up until the end. Offstage, I felt dim, shuttered, a prop, the stick under the puppet. I seemed a stranger to myself, a changeling placed here in my life at some point I couldn’t remember, and the glass of the mirror at the entrance to the palace seemed made from the same amber of the dream that surrounded me, a life that was not life, and which I could not seem to escape no matter where I went or where I sang. 

        And so their celebration of me that night at the ball, sincere as it was, felt as if it were happening in the life neighboring mine, visible through a glass. 

        I tell you I was distracted, but it was much more than that. For I was also focused intensely, waiting for one thing and one thing only, my attention turned toward something I couldn’t quite see but was sure was there, coming for me through the days ahead. I’d had a premonition in accepting the role of Marguerite that, in returning to Paris this time, I would be here for a meeting with my destiny. Here I would find what would transform me, what would return me to life and make this life the paradise I was so sure it should be. 

        I had been back in Paris for a little more than a month now, though, and my hopes for this had not yet come true, and so I waited with an increasingly dull vigilance, still sure my appointed hour was ahead of me, and yet I did not know what it was or where it would be. 

        It was here, of course. 

    I rose finally from a third curtsy and was halfway to the doors to the terrace when I noticed a man crossing the floor quickly, dressed in a beautiful new evening suit. He was ruddy against the white of his shirt and tie, if handsomely so. His hair was neatly swept...

  • Reviews

    National Bestseller 
    New York Times Editor's Choice 
    An Indie Next Pick 
    One of the Most Anticipated Titles of 2016 by Entertainment Weekly, Wired, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, BBC, Bustle, The Millions, Flavorwire, Book Riot, Brooklyn Magazine, and Bookish.
     
    A Guardian Best Book of the Summer  
    A Best Book of the Year So Far from Esquire, Refinery 29, and Financial Times 
     
    "The Queen of the Night joins Tipping the Velvet and The Crimson Petal and the White as the rare historical novel in which the setting may be old, but the writing makes everything feel brand new. Alexander Chee has written a subversive, sexy epic about a young American girl who struggles more than her fans will ever understand on her way to eventually become a highly celebrated soprano at the Paris Opera House. Lillet Berne's dramatic rise to success is all the more exciting because of all the wonderful details Chee includes about her life in the late 19th century. The descriptions of her dresses alone are worth the price of this book, and Chee's knowledge about opera is such that you can almost hear the music when reading his words. But for all the research and historical detail, in the end, it's a love story, as so many of the most excellent books are."--Esquire  
     
    “The novel is infused with an operatic sensibility…The Queen of the Night is a celebration of these women of creativity, ingenuity, endurance, mastery and grace—a gala in their honor.” —Kelly Gardiner, New York Times  
      
    “Epic…Brilliantly extravagant in its twists and turns and its wide-ranging cast of character.” —Julia Felsenthal, Vogue  
      
    “[An] extravagant five-act grand opera of a novel…Chee’s writing is cultured and confident, and the elite society he depicts is dazzling…Readers willing to submit to the spell of this glittering, luxuriantly paced novel will find that it rewards their attention, from its opening mysteries to its satisfying full-circle finale.” —Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal 
      
    "A sweeping, richly detailed historical novel about a young woman's tumultuous trajectory from circus rider to renowned soprano at the Paris Opera." —Kim Hubbard, People 
      
    “An opera of the page, complete with seduction, hidden identity, betrayal and plenty of costume changes…It’s the ball gowns and roses, magic tricks and ruses, hubris and punishment that will keep the reader absorbed until the final aria.” —Sarah Begley, Time 
      
    “Gorgeous prose...Extraordinarily beautiful and dramatic, a brilliant performance.” —Wendy Smith, Washington Post 
      
    “[A] postmodern bodice ripper…It just sounds terrific. It sounds like opera…It offers a rare, intriguing psychology: the heart as a buried place, where someone is hiding, singing—words you can’t quite hear.” —Joan Acocella, The New Yorker 
      
    "[A] wild opera of a novel…Swift, smart, immersive, and gorgeous." —Garth Greenwell, The Guardian 
      
    “If Lilliet Berne were a man, she might have been what 19th-century novels would call a swashbuckler: the kind of destiny-courting, death-defying character who finds intrigue and peril (and somehow, always, a fantastic pair of pantaloons) around every corner…The richness of [Chee’s] research is evident on every page. Paris’ glittering swirl of artists, artistocrats, and underworld habitués lives vividly in his descriptions.” —Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly  
      
    "Despite the nineteenth-century setting, the story couldn’t be more appropriate for the Age of Kardashian—a masterful look at transformation and its unforeseen aftershocks." —Nathan Smith, Wired 
      
    The Queen of the Night tackles the fate of history, women’s sexuality, and the inner lives of forgotten courtesans who wielded power at a time when women were often powerless. The intricate ways Chee renders this past reveals so much about our present day.” —Tanwi Nandini Islam, Elle 
      
    “Vivid, glittering…A spellbinding story of intrigue and self-reinvention." —Jarry Lee, Buzzfeed 
      
    “With a hint of the charm of Victorian erotica, a marvelously involute plot and a whiff of the circus in the American grain… Chee has leaped to another scale altogether…Here, that voice, a rare instance of a fairy-tale first person, is at once fabulous in its simplicity and intimate in its specificity, making the story seem historical, mythic and at the same time deeply personal.” —Ellen Akins, Los Angeles Times 
      
    "Enchants." —US Weekly 
      
    “Operatically elaborate, enthralling…A bit like Verdi’s La Forza del Destino in its twists and turns…Chee does an excellent job of making the world of 19th-century opera—an art form that continues to struggle with the perception that it is not fun—lively and fascinating and louche.” —Spencer Lenfield, Slate  
      
    "A lush, imaginative novel, one that you’ll hope never ends." —Claire Luchette, Travel and Leisure 
     
    "Queen of the Night joins Tipping the Velvet and The Crimson Petal and the White as the rare historical novel in which the setting may be old, but the writing makes everything feel brand new…A subversive, sexy epic." —Maris Kreizman, Esquire 
      
    “A multi-stranded, thoroughly researched epic." —Joe Fassler, The Atlantic 
      
    The Queen of the Night is an astonishing universe into which its lucky readers can dissolve completely, metamorphosing alongside its shapeshifting protagonist. Lilliet Berne steals her name from a gravestone and launches into a life of full-throated song; her voice is an intoxicant, and this book is a glorious performance. Chee's enveloping, seductive prose is perfectly matched to the circus world of the opera.” —Karen Russell 
      
    "A luminous tale of power and passion. Chee gives us an unforgettable heroine and a rich cast of characters—many of them real historical figures. The story dazzles and surprises right up until the final page." —J. Courtney Sullivan 
      
    “One doesn't so much read Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night as one is bewitched by it. Beneath its epic sweep, gorgeous language, and haunting details is the most elemental, and eternal, of narratives: that of the necessities and perils of self-reinvention, and the sorrow and giddiness of aspiring to a life of artistic transcendence.” —Hanya Yanagihara 
      
    "Alexander Chee packs his extraordinary second novel, The Queen of the Night, to the seams with music, love, misery, and secrets. The kind of book—world&m...
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