I saw this book on a used book shelf years ago and was totally pulled towards the cover but, for some reason that I cannot remember, I didn’t buy it. Recently Alexander Chee’s name has been everywhere. And a wonderful book friend of my, Hunter (@shelfbyshelf), started a #bookstagram book club this year and this book was his January pick. So I figured that was a sign that it was about time. Now, please note that we are halfway through February while I am writing this review (and now into March when I’m actually posting it) for a January book club book. Clearly, I didn’t quite make that deadline….
Lilliet Berne is an opera singer in 1800s Paris, famous for her unique and legendary voice. When she receives a request to accept an original role, one written specifically for her voice. However, the libretto seems to be based on her own history, a story that she thought was a secret, a story that only a few people know. So she sets out to find out who it was that gave away her secrets. And as she investigates, the full story of these connections, her past, emerges in dramatic fashion, spanning years and continents and all manner of lifestyles.
“The curse is not that we cannot choose our Fates. The curse, the curse we all live under, is that we can.”
One of the very first things you notice about this book is that it is long. It needs to be, for all that it covers. However, I also feel that it bordered on too long. It was a slow-ish start for me. In fact, even a quarter of the way through I was still struggling a little with the pacing, which seemed a bit sluggish…especially considering how much craziness and drama we went through alongside Lilliet. Maybe it was the fact that there was a lot of present-day insight/foreshadowing, which always makes me want to rush through to see what major event is being hyped up next and/or how the narrator gets to where they are now, as they are telling the story. It also definitely stemmed from the extended recaps of opera librettos and philosophical wonderings into fate and how Lilliet’s life mirrored certain popular operas. I listened to this as an audiobook and, to be honest, I am not sure I would have made it through if I was reading. Or at least, it would have been an even slower journey. At the same time though, I truly appreciated the writing itself. It was smooth, elaborate, lyrical and evocative. And it fit the mood of the book, so I understand and respect the author’s choice to write it that way.
“It is not love that drives us mad, I think, but all the rest of life around the love.”
Regardless, even though the pacing felt slow for me, the story and setting completely got me. It is all incredibly atmospheric and a phenomenal period piece. The adventure and drama were over the top in the very best way, considering that one of the main plots points was opera (and Lilliet’s singing voice). Opera is not something I know a lot about. However, I accidentally took an entire class on opera in college (seriously, I had no idea what I was signing up for and I still think the class was mis-described, but, in the end, I did learn stuff about a couple famous opera’s so…there’s that) and basically what I remember is that the drama is real. I mean seriously, they were like, the original telenovelas (which, now that I think about the fact that they are called soap operas in English, is all coming together). Anyways, back on track: drama. It is all here in this opera-based novel: orphans, runaways, circus performers, courtesans, secret mutes, debut singers, illicit and doomed romances, tons of mistresses, curses, political intrigue, fate, hidden identities, siege and war, murder, cameos from multiple actual famous historical figures, and more. And literally, Lilliet was center stage for all of it. In fact, at one point or another, I think every one of those mantles was worn or experienced by her (minus the famous figures’ cameos, of course). It’s almost unbelievable that Chee was able to get it into one book (which, again, does explain the length). And his ability to weave the plots to a number of different operas all into this one longer production, with various common aspects/themes as the guiding and connecting threads, was a fantastically used plot device.
“Why was there never an opera that ended with a soprano who was free?”
As far as character development, I have to say that I think this was much more a plot and writing based novel. I felt like the characters all played their roles well, and truly, but also exactly how they needed to in order to make the operatic level of drama possible. It all felt scripted. Which makes sense, as I said, considering the plot and opera storylines, but it also served to make the characters…too perfect at their roles, I guess. It’s a weird critique that I’m not sure how to clearly explain, but it’s just the feeling I had while reading. However, I did truly like where we leave Lilliet in the end. It’s perhaps not the great romantic ending one might hope for, but at the same time, I love how she broke the chains of operatic fate and decided on her own path, in her own way, for herself – something that was essentially denied to her for the entirety of her life, even during the “good” times (in line with soprano roles…as she intricately deconstructs for us throughout the novel). It was very satisfying in a non-traditional way that I found refreshing.
“Love is never governed by reason.”
Altogether this was a completely transporting novel, with enough intrigue and gasp-worthy moments to keep even the most experienced reader on their toes and guessing about what could possibly happen next. I did enjoy and would recommend this book, but only to someone who is ready to completely sink into another world, ready for the slow-burn and highly detailed unfolding that this novel offers. It’s not a book to be undertaken lightly or in the wrong mood, but if this is what you are looking for, I cannot (off the top of my head) think of one that fits the bill any better.