No Storm of Roses
Queen of the Night
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
Lilliet Berne begins Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night as an internationally celebrated opera star in late nineteenth century France. Early in her career, she is told by a singing teacher that her voice is a rare and delicate one—she is a Falcon Soprano. The voice is named after Marie-Cornélie Falcon, a real woman who had a brilliant stage career for only eight years before she permanently lost her famous voice in the middle of a performance. Berne is reminded frequently by the people around her that her voice may be unusually strong and expressive, but an error of training or a performance outside her fach—the roles written for her voice’s strengths—could silence her in an instant. Lilliet feels the danger, but she has an adventurous nature and can’t be cautious for long.
The chance of losing her voice isn’t the only threat Lilliet lives under. A writer finds her at a party and asks if she’d consider taking the starring role in a new opera based on his most recent novel. As he describes the plot of the novel, Lilliet hears the story of her own scandalous route to the stage—if it were all known, she would likely lose everything and be thrown into jail.
There are only four people who have ever known the full truth of the many identities Lilliet has inhabited between her birth and the height of her fame. One of these four people—one who loves her, one who has owned her, one who is dead, and one she hopes never thinks of her at all—must have told her story to the novelist. She doesn’t know if the novelist himself knows that the story is true, or that it’s hers. She begins her hunt for these four people, driving back into her own past. Chee’s expansive novel takes us through Lilliet’s history through to the truth about this novelist and his new opera.
Lilliet was born in Minnesota as a farmer’s daughter. After the last of her family dies, she takes the little money she has and begins a journey to find her mother’s relations in Switzerland. This section recalls the early stages of Moby Dick or Villette; there’s something gripping about a character using the last of her money, coin by coin, to get farther and farther from anything known or familiar. Young Lilliet finds work at a traveling circus and makes her way across the Atlantic. The circus isn’t paying enough to get her all the way to Lucerne so she’s forced to change tactics. She makes the decision to become a fille en carte—a prostitute—but it’s a decision she makes too lightly: she does not fully understand the implications. She thinks it’s just about sex for money.
However, once her name is written in the police registry of prostitutes, she isn’t allowed to travel to certain parts of the city at all, isn’t allowed to be seen in the rest of the city except at night, isn’t allowed to speak to any “virtuous” woman, and has to go to the police to renew her prostitution license or risk arrest. Once the brothel owner gives her clothes and food, she is officially in debt, and for as long as that debt belongs to her madame, Lilliet has no hope of freedom. The money she earns with clients goes against this debt, though every day that she stays and eats the brothel owner’s food and sleeps bunked with other girls in the attic beds, the debt grows. The only way out of the brothel is for a rich man to buy her, including her debt, from the madame. When one of her prostitute friends talks lightly about the loyalty of men who are given their greatest fantasies, it’s hard not to see these fille en carte restrictions as an expression of even greater hatred against these women. No better life waits for Lilliet if she marries. A wife in this world is as restricted and exploited as the fille en carte or more so. Chee balances the genuine horrors of these circumstances against Lilliet’s ability to slip out of traps wherever they’re laid. She’s essentially a tourist in these dungeons, and we readers get to see the larger world since we escape from each fix when she does. Secondary characters bear the weight of the exploitation, where Lilliet herself leaves before she’s pulverized by injustice.
Instead of creating a world where these horrible conditions seem flimsy and easy to avoid, Chee plays a contrary trick—he makes a world that’s all traps. Lilliet is nimble and lucky, but it’s a time and place with scarcely any good options, for a woman in particular. Even the richest women are almost as constrained as the poorest, at the mercy of the men and other women in their lives; they have to use sex to secure a position in society, but if they’re exposed as unchaste, they stand to lose everything.
In 2014, Chee wrote for the New York Times about a period of about three years in his early adulthood when he read only books by women. He says it showed him the world outside his male privilege:
I inhabited a system in which any boy goes through life with a kind of automatic social promotion, able to take his turn first, answer first, eat first. His ideas are welcome, people smile at him, feed him, pay him well. When he is in trouble, he is usually helped first, or told there will be no consequences this time, and “this time” turns out to be every time. He is like a child raised in a bubble, but one who was well when he entered. It’s the bubble that makes him sick.
These ideas go to work in Queen of the Night—it’s a book opposed to male privilege, to the centrality of the male experience of love, power and war. It opposes many of the usual historical stories about women: that without virginity, they’re ruined; that they’re better off married; that they’re kept safe in private by men who work in the public sphere. In Chee’s world, femininity is a great illusion or circus act, an adventure of survival by wits.
Those wits come often in the form of fashion. Lilliet is pretty, but learns to be beautiful. She constructs an edifice of style, charm and sex around herself, which keeps her safer for a while. Style is a pleasure to her, but closer to a job than a whim. The femininity Lilliet builds, silk by silk, emerald by emerald, is a matter of staying one step ahead of the devil—who appears often enough in the form of a person who claims to love her.
By the time she finally gathers the money to get to her mother’s relatives, she has had enough experience to understand that a good family might embrace her, accept her adventurous past and help to find her a nice husband who doesn’t mind where she’s been; but nice husband is no longer something Lilliet wants. She realizes there would a better chance of real independence if she could become a great singer. Ambition is the only way out of the false choice between marriage and prostitution. The women who have some measure of security in this book are the ones who have made money for themselves as artists and are valued by large groups of male and female friends.
Her feelings about singing are never simple. It’s a pleasure for her to sing, but even from childhood her voice has been a mixed blessing. She can use it to get jobs, admiration and a measure of security, but it also attracts the attention of her powerful and abusive patron. The more she sings, the farther she goes from a life on an ordinary scale to an operatic degree of wealth love, obsession, and despair. Once she sings, she isn’t only the object of her patron’s love, but his singular obsession that carries her back into his power over and over. When she starts singing, she’s no longer counting coins against the debt to the brothel madame, she’s throwing diamonds in the garbage to make a point about her admirer’s unworthiness. The voice itself seems to have its own mysterious fate that she can’t control, even while she still has some control over her actions. She muses as she is reaching her full power as a singer:
It is a peculiar thing to reach this conclusion, that a god has taken your life in hand. The sensation is not what people might imagine; it is not magic, nor is it a haunting, nor is it a miracle—there’s no storm of roses, no whistle that can put a raging ocean to sleep, no figure in the mirror besides your own. Instead, the terms are stark. You may or may not leave with your life. You sense your world changed into a stage set for something done to teach only you. You do not feel mad, only very alone, for the scale of the event is so ridiculous no one else will believe you and so no one else will help you—and to say aloud what you are going through will sound like madness, and your god wants this. Your god wants you to be abandoned by all others, for your god has done this so he can be alone with you, and he is waiting.
—it’s a chilly but also thrilling description of inspiration and artistic devotion.
Aside from her lack of money, Lilliet’s destiny is her own when she sets out from her family’s farm. As she gets more money and goes deeper into the realms of art, power and love, she’s more constrained than ever by their individual disciplines. She can only sing the songs of the Falcon Soprano, or she’ll lose her voice. Once the Emperor and Empress have officially noticed her, she’s caught in their webs of influence. Love is the most effective of the cages that finally hold her—both the love of her patron and a relationship with the composer she truly loves.
The story falls into the plots of several famous operas as it goes, though it doesn’t settle into any simplistic retelling. Lilliet is like Pamina from Mozart’s Magic Flute —she’s controlled by a man who’s certain he knows what’s best for her and she wants to escape him to be with her true love. Later she describes her sympathy for Pamina’s opera-mother, the Queen of the Night:
I, however, loved the Queen. The lovers were nothing to me. I loved the power she commanded and the terror others felt at her appearance. I, too, wanted to be feared, even just once—I wanted to to be feared especially that night in the Weimar theater, caught as I was in my strange cage made from my own ambitions and mistakes.
She also inhabits the sexy freedom-loving Carmen, and the tragic Lucia di Lammermoor. Chee writes asides about the plots of many operas and the details of how singers are trained and how they perform, which are always fascinating.
Lilliet leaves the brothel when her patron hears her sing and decides to buy her:
When I say he owned me all those years ago, I mean he owned me like he owned his shoes…He bought me from Odile, bought my contract. He freed me from my unconquerable bill of fare with her but delivered me into his own.
This makes Lilliet the envy of the other women in the brothel, but she is not happy with the change. Instead of having the company of her friends, she is alone in the apartment the patron buys for her. Instead of a variety of clients, she’s entirely at the mercy of his desires and plans. At first she’s content enough because he wants to find her opera training, but when their relationship and her carte seems to be getting in the way, she bolts away from him.
Before he catches her again, Lilliet takes a job as a maid to the Empress of France while also spying for a woman who is trying to overthrow the Second Empire. In the thick of the machinations around the throne, Lilliet falls in love with a young composer who belongs to another upper-class lover. The two try to escape during the Franco-Prussian war, eventually starving and hiding in an abandoned zoo after all the animals have died or been eaten by starving Parisians. The composer is killed in their most daring attempt to escape the Prussian siege on Paris.
These are some of the elements in the novel that Lilliet reads—the fact of her survival and freedom against all these odds is shameful; and if it were more widely known that the story is true, it would ruin her. Nevertheless, Lilliet decides that the opera based on her life, and more significantly, her love for the dead composer, is worth the risk.
Chee’s intricate Second-Empire France is so unselfconscious it’s worth keeping Wikipedia close by to recognize how beautifully researched it is. The national politics blend with the intimate lives of the characters. The people Lilliet meets are often real, though written seamlessly beside the fictional characters. Pauline Viardot appears as Berme’s teacher, sharing a household with her husband Louis Viardot and her lover Ivan Turgenev. They stay with George Sand in an idyllic Nohant. Indeed, the book has a lot in common with George Sand’s work, in some ways seeming breezy and full of traveling and sex scandals, but from another angle all those same qualities are bright lights on deeper injustices. Queen of the Night is ambitious in an old-fashioned way, more like the old picaresque style of Moll Flanders or Candide than obedient to the conventions of modern literary fiction—but I think it more than succeeds at the implicit goal of fiction from any decade. It shows us a new face of the world and the people in it.
Catherine Nichols lives in Massachusetts. She has written for Open Letters Monthly, Seattle Review of Books, Jezebel, and Electric Literature.