Opera without music is just bad writing

920x920When I finished chapter one of Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night this morning I was in very high dudgeon. After only 18 pages I knew this novel about a 19th century opera diva, wasn’t for me. I was dubious about the melodramatic twaddle. Since then I have read reviews that suggest Chee meant it to be melodramatic. Just like an opera. The only problem is that in opera I am moved because of the music and in spite of the melodrama. It’s only the music that allows me to overlook the insane, implausible plots of most operas. If you want 553 pages of sugary, tragic, over the top, operatic writing, then this is the book for you. It was lines like this that leapt off the page:

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.

Later, after a writer proposes to write a role for her (that just happens to be her hitherto unknown life story–and still unbeknownst to the writer) she comes up with this gem:

Here it was, the source of my premonition, the meeting with my destiny.

Of course it is. And it only took 3 pages to get from premonition to postmonition. (It’s a new word.) And just in case we missed the fact that the libretto he wants to write is based on her life story as a young singer from America–which he still doesn’t know is her story–he says:

My novels…it would seem they have a way of coming true.

Did I mention we are only on page 12? All of this is told against a backdrop of Chee trying to prove to us how much research he has done as well as his inability to let the reader figure details out for herself. For instance, he can’t just mention an opera by name, he has to tell us who the composer is. Similarly he can’t just say La Scala or Mariinsky, he has to tell us they are in Milan and Saint Petersburg respectively. I hate that kind of writing. I’m not a huge fan of the inverse where the author is too opaque with facts, but I think I prefer it over the let me spell everything out for you as if you have no cultural literacy or don’t have access to a dictionary or the internet, style of writing. Even worse, he refers more than once to the Jewel Song aria from Faust. How about just calling it the Jewel Song from Faust? You don’t need to prove, or explain to your audience, that it is an aria.  Or maybe the first time you could have written something like “the Jewel Song,–the aria where Maugeurite…” and then the next time just call it the Jewel Song. I know this sounds like small cheese, but to me it is the hallmark of a bad writer when they feel the need to spell everything out.

There were also factual implausibilities that kept popping up–something historical fiction tends to do to me. For instance I don’t even want to get into a debate over whether candlelight or gaslight at home is going to give our heroine a better sense of what her gown will look like under the brilliant chandeliers at the ball. And, in the age of made to order clothes and the absolute and complete absence of read-to-wear, are we really to believe that her dressmaker just happened to have a black-beaded gown with a train that she could could put on at a moment’s notice. Let’s skip the fact that this dress swap literally happened when the heroine left the party in her ugly dress that had been reduced to tutu length (no, just no) by two nobleman who get sexual pleasure from cutting women’s dresses with their (literal) sabers. The dressmaker just happened to be closing up (he dressed other women for the ball don’t you know, the Rachel Zoe of his day) and had the perfect thing for her that apparently required no alterations.

And don’t get me started on the plausibility of a singer of her caliber and renown never having originated a role. And the unlikihood that she would even consider it without knowing the composer first. And if he was a protege of the FAMOUS Verdi–who was also her close, personal friend (he is more proud of his risotto than Aida!)–why the hell didn’t she at least know of the composer already?


This only gets us to page 18! That seems like a great place to stop and hurl the book across the room to my donate pile.

14 thoughts on “Opera without music is just bad writing

  1. The Book Cottage September 13, 2016 / 9:43 pm

    Well, I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the book – that’s not always a great feeling – but I’m so glad I’m not alone! I read so many great reviews of this book, and I thought the cover was stunning, so I ran out and purchased a copy. I was about 10 or so pages in, and I felt lost. I hated the writing style, and was hoping it was just an intro, and that once the story took off it would get better. About 100 pages in I gave up. Reading this book was like a dreaded chore – it was unbearable.


    • Thomas September 14, 2016 / 8:39 am

      If it hadn’t been for recent terrible books that I spent too much time reading before giving up, I might have read past page 18 on this one.


      • The Book Cottage September 14, 2016 / 8:54 am

        I had a time span last year where I disliked everything I picked up. I never felt that I could review a book that I didn’t finish, so not only was I frustrated because the books were so bad, but my blog suffered as well. I’ve since changed my mind and will at least be able to vent some of my frustration with a book that I didn’t get along with :)


  2. Karenna September 13, 2016 / 10:25 pm

    I’m so happy you’ve written this post. You’ve given voice to many of my problems with this book. I did finish it, and the absurdities only increased. Like Book Cottage, I was baffled that it had such positive reviews. Thanks for restoring my sanity.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ruthiella September 14, 2016 / 12:38 am

    Oh, this review made me laugh. This wasn’t a favorite of mine either, but I did finish it. Looks like you are making short work of that big pile of books!


    • Thomas September 14, 2016 / 8:41 am

      You are so right about making short work of the pile. I’ve DNF’d this one, The Goldfinch, Association of Small Bombs, and the Tom Wolfe one about Miami. So liberating.


  4. biggardenblog September 14, 2016 / 2:53 am

    [J] Thank heavens for someone who says it as they find it! I do sometimes wonder if some over-paid book critics do actually read the books.


    • Thomas September 14, 2016 / 8:44 am

      Well the NYT had it reviewed by another author (which I think always leads to praise), and that author has written a book about an opera singer. Seems a bit like a conflict of interest.


  5. Elle September 14, 2016 / 6:22 am

    Och, man, I loved this! I had massive issues with the melodrama and the credibility, but you know what he does do really well? Describe music, and singing, and the crazy heightened drug-like emotions that go with it. I’m a classical singer and I promise you, most novelists never even get near that.


    • Thomas September 14, 2016 / 8:52 am

      I admit I never got to the parts about the emotions of singing. I trained as a classical singer in college. I’m not sure that would have been enough to make me forgive his clumsiness about the other musical aspects that I came across. I find it hard to find novels that deal with classical music in a way that I don’t find simplistic or pedantic (or both!). I feel like I should re-read Bel Canto to see how I feel about it 14 years later–I loved it when I first read it.

      Two of my favorite classical music novels are Norman Lebrecht’s The Song of Names, and Robert Ford’s The Student Conductor.


      • Elle September 14, 2016 / 11:05 am

        I’ve not heard of those two, but I’ll have to look them up :) Oh yes, Bel Canto – I agree, definitely due a re-read to see how it holds up. (Also – have you read An Equal Music by Vikram Seth, and/or Trio by Sue Gee?)


  6. BookerTalk September 17, 2016 / 1:52 am

    I feel sorry for the people who buy this from the used book store. Sounds like a dreadful book.


  7. Alice September 18, 2016 / 2:45 pm

    Love the title of this post, too true. Also, wonderful use of the word, ‘twaddle’.


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