The Queen of the Night will be most enjoyed by those who have a working knowledge of 19th century French history, love opera, and have the patience and endurance for long books. The thing is, I’m not sure how many people fit the intersection of those three criteria. It’s a club for which I personally do not have a membership card.
The novel is certainly an achievement, evidenced by its sheer size and confirmed with the author’s note at the end, in which Chee details his exhaustive research. And I do mean exhaustive. I grew fatigued just skimming the list, but I’ve always been a lightweight when it comes to research. When forced to use “outside sources” in class, I’d poke around until I found an article or two that said approximately what I wanted them to say, plug in a few quotes, and call it good. Chee, in contrast, was clearly energized by the minutiae of his chosen topic and eager to incorporate as much of it as he could into his novel. As I read, I appreciated the competent prose but was constantly frustrated by the distance I felt from Lilliet, the enigmatic main character whose secret and scandalous past serves as the basis for an opera. When I finally got to the author’s note, I understood: Chee, in his zeal for historical detail, has written more of a research paper than a novel.
So I respected The Queen of the Night more than I liked it. I think there is an audience for it, the kind of people who like an academic and rigorous read, who will enjoy it very much. But I’m relieved to move on to something else—lighter, with perhaps a bit less French.
With regards to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for the advance copy. On sale today, February 2.