When 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.