It's a long story as to why, but my 10-year-old and I listen to opera on Fridays on the way to school. Turnadot. And Fridays because "Nessun Dorma" is too much for a Monday.
So it's true that I was an easy mark for Alexander Chee's extraordinary QUEEN OF THE NIGHT, given the opera that courses through the novel, and the fact that so much of it takes place in and around 19th century Paris. But anyone would -- and should -- fall for this epic tale.
Chee has said that he based his protagonist, Lilliet Berne, on the Swedish opera star Jenny Lind, who, in her life's last act, toured the United States with consummate showman PT Barnum. But Chee is also clear that Berne is wholly his own creation, and the result is wholly remarkable. The book is 500-some pages, but it's hard to imagine telling this story in a shorter length, given that it traces Lilliet from the Minnesota prairie to the circus, Paris, a brothel, the royal court, London, and beyond. She has servants of her own, she loses everything. She falls in and out of love with men who try to craft the narrative of arc of her life for her--in one case, literally--and navigates a series of poisonous friendships.
Berne is a "falcon"--an opera singer who possesses a rare and delicate voice like that of Cornélie Falcon, who enjoyed a famously influential, and famously brief, career. But Berne's voice on the page never wobbles. It's careful and sure; occasionally vulnerable, but its survival--and Berne's--is never in doubt.
I will never stop marveling at writers who can write a long novel, and even more so those who distill in so much research along the way without a word of it ever feeling researched. And--well, let me skip to the point. Opéra national de Paris's production of La Traviata closes tomorrow night. You still have time to get there. And if you're coming from the US, you've got an 8-10 flight ahead which is just enough time to get deep into QUEEN OF THE NIGHT. Enjoy the trip.