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. 

     

    Related Subjects

    Fiction
  • 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 EW, Wired, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, BBC, Bustle, The Millions, Flavorwire, Book Riot, Brooklyn Magazine, and Bookish.
     
     
    "The Queen of the Night is a radical act of art-making. A willingness on the part of the author to research, not only with factual intensity, but with an empathetic intensity that neither prioritizes history or the individual humans inside of it so much as it forces them to meet or collapse into each other. Quite simply, it’s a very intricate devotion to character and story, to believing in what an act of language can become."Carrie Lorig, Arts Atlanta 
     
    "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…Paris’ glittering swirl of artists, aristocrats, and underworld habitués lives vividly in [Alexander Chee’s] descriptions; no gaslit château or jet-beaded evening dress goes unnoted or unadmired.”—Entertainment Weekly 
     
    "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." —The New Yorker 
     
    "A sweeping, richly detailed historical novel about a young woman's tumultuous trajectory from circus rider to renowned soprano at the Paris Opera."—People  
     
    "Enchants." —US Weekly 
     
    "The Queen Of The Night is sprawling, soaring, bawdy and plotted like a fine embroidery." —Scott Simon, NPR 
     
    "[An] extravagant five-act grand opera of a novel...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. Mr. Chee could be speaking of his own work when he exalts 'the ridiculous and beloved thief that is opera—the singer who sneaks into the palace of your heart and somehow enters the stage singing aloud the secret hope or love or grief you hoped would always stay secret, disguised as melodrama.' The highest compliment one can pay this book is that it is easy to imagine a version of it triumphing on the stage." —The Wall Street Journal 
     
    "It’s the ball gowns, and roses, magic tricks and, ruses, hubris and punishment that will keep the reader absorbed until the final aria, waiting to see whom fate will curse and whom it will avenge." —TIME  
     
    "To call Alexander Chee’s epic new novel ambitious is something of an understatement...The Queen of the Night is brilliantly extravagant in its twists and turns and its wide-ranging cast of characters. But Chee is equally lavish in his attention to the material culture of Second Empire and Belle Epoque Paris, the fabulously ornate clothes and jewels." —Vogue 
     
    "A multi-stranded, thoroughly researched epic." —The Atlantic 
     
    "A vivid, glittering portrait of Paris in the 19th century and its opera scene. A spellbinding story of intrigue and self-reinvention." Buzzfeed 
     
    "[A] grand, heavily accessorized historical epic. Queen is as operatic as its shape-shifting narrator...No self-conscious pastiche, this is classical, full-throated melodrama, not so much a meditation as an aria on fate." —New York Magazine 
     
    "If you pay attention to literary Twitter, you’re familiar with Chee, the quintessential author/good book-world citizen. Now he has a new novel coming out for the first time in over a decade, an intriguing tale of operatic blackmail and suspense."The Huffington Post  
     
    "Remarkable new novel...The Queen of the Night blurs the lines between reality and art and the boundaries of narration...reading this book is deeply pleasurable." —The San Francisco Chronicle 
     
    "[A] lush costume drama of a novel...[its] atmosphere is transporting, and intrigue keeps pulling us forward.” Boston Globe 
     
    "The Queen of Night is the first truly epic novel of the year."—The Week 
     
    "The Queen of the Night is a 576-page historical novel [with a] plot that is operatically elaborate, enthralling, and occasionally farfetched—a bit like Verdi’s La Forza del Destino in its twists and turns. Chee has the great novelistic skill...of getting his character into sticky situations and letting her get out of them with her creativity and intelligence. 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."—Slate 
     
    “Through Lilliet, we experience the decadence of Second Empire Paris and the terror of the Franco-Prussian War. The novel’s most operatic characters really lived…and Chee gets them right.”—More 
     
    "A blazing bright star of a book...The Queen of the Night is, at its core, an exploration of an artist’s heart...a soaring falcon."—Bustle 
     
    "Chee's new novel drips with romance, betrayal, intrigue, and espionage...the grandiose, ostentatious opera it was meant to be."—The Christian Science Monitor 
     
    "A lush, imaginative novel, one that you’ll hope never ends." —Travel and Leisure 
     
    "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." —Wired 
     
    "A plot so crammed with wild incident, shattering reversal and explosive emotion, one wonders if the author somehow got his hands on Alexander Dumas’ old munitions dump and emptied it of its contents...Passion, jealousy, betrayal and revenge spill over the pages."  —Newsday 
     
    "A fantasia set in a world of opera, dance halls and the court intrigues of Second Empire Paris." —Minneapolis Star-Tribune 
     
    "The Second French Empire comes alive in the beautiful story of a courtesan-turned Parisian opera star." —Entertainment Weekly, pre-pub announcement 
     
    "Feels in many ways like Thackeray’s Vanity Fair...the culmination of The Queen of the Night, which is as delightful and unexpected as anything that precedes it, deserves several curtain calls. Chee has conjured up both a diva to remember and an ending that is worthy of her."Barnes & Noble Review 
     
    "Dive deep into the tumultuous, intense world of the 19th-century Parisian opera scene ...