'The Queen of the Night' brings readers back to a time when opera was sexy

Studio 360
Alexander Chee (M. Sharkey)

Alexander Chee (M. Sharkey)

Alexander Chee’s new novel is a romance about an American girl in 19th-century Paris. The heroine, Lilliet Berne, bounces from one identity to the next — a frontier orphan who runs off to join the circus, a Parisian courtesan, a royal chambermaid, a spy, an opera superstar.

"The Queen of the Night" is a page-turner whose beautiful prose makes the pages worth turning.

“I wanted to bring alive that kind of excitement that people had back then for the opera,” Chee says. “I think now it's thought of as something that's a little fussy, ... [but back then] it was so damn sexy.” 

Chee was inspired to write the book after his friend told him about 1800s singer Jenny Lind. Lind quit the stage early in her career at the peak of her superstardom and then went on an extensive two-year “farewell” tour with P.T. Barnum. 

There are many vivid descriptions of 19th century fashion and women’s clothing in the book — a writing choice that was informed by Chee’s own obsession with fashion. 

“You wouldn't probably know it to look at the way I dress, but I ... think a lot about fashion,” Chee says. “My fascination with women's clothes began very early. ... My mother was a very, very fashionable woman. ... She had these fashion magazines that she would get and I would draw the women in them. And pretty soon, by I think middle school, my art teacher suggested that I have a fashion drawing show.”

There are few similarities between Chee and the main character in “The Queen of the Night,” though both are nomads. Chee has lived in Maine, Guam and South Korea. Lilliet also spends much of the book moving around. 

“One of the few things that I gave to her out of my own existence is that feeling that there was a home somewhere ahead of you, that you had not yet found, where you would feel that you belonged more than the place you're from,” Chee says. “That and also being something that your parents couldn't really imagine…I think when you're biracial, the way I was at the time that I was in in Maine, people kept asking me, ‘What are you? What are you? What are you?’ It was like I wasn't even human.” 

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.