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March 2017

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Book review: Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee


Winterhalter's 1865 portrait of Empress Elizabeth of Austria
in a gown by Charles Worth and diamond star ornaments dressed into her hair

While book reviews are a fairly common feature in La Bricoleuse, i should preface this one with a bit of a caveat, because it’s highly irregular that the subject of such a review would be a novel. The book features have typically addressed nonfiction of a costume-related bent, such as Shoes: An Illustrate History by Rebecca Shawcross or The Spoonflower Handbook.

However, it is for entirely topical reasons that I draw your attention to Alexander Chee’s new release, Queen of the Night.


I was perhaps predisposed to pick up this novel—it is set in a place and time (Paris during the Second Empire/Third Republic) which are among my pet research topics and follows the tumultuous career of an operatic soprano. As I’ve worked as a costumer for companies like the LA Opera, i’m intrigued by opera history and familiar with its canon, and i do love the soaring drama of those storylines. And, well do i know that historically, the lives of opera singers often might well be the plot lines of operas themselves—the tragic death of La Malibran, for example, or the dramatic onstage shattering of Cornélie Falcon’s voice.

But whether you have any familiarity with opera or not, if you enjoy the focus of this blog, you ought to grab a copy of this book and check it out, and here’s why: costume and couture of the period is a significant thematic element. From the Parisian ateliers of Worth and Félix [1] to the subterranean storehouse of Empress Eugénie’s fur collection, there’s so much to love for the costume academic or enthusiast.

For example, when was the last time you read a contemporary historical novel in which an author acknowledged the fact that women dressed wiglets and switches into their hair when creating elaborate hairstyles? Given the general flimsiness of women’s silk slippers for society parties, you’ll appreciate Chee’s tip of the hat to special pairs of cancan boots—wooden heeled, leather uppers—transgressively structured footwear made for stamping and kicking all night. And when you hit the section in which a courtesan advises her protegée on the conversion of various types of jewelry into ready money, if you’re of my nitpicky mindset, you’ll love to see that type of information codified on the page.

In fact, clothing is often a sticking point for me in terms of the enjoyment of historical fiction—even moreso than the snark the ladies of Frock Flicks dish on with respect to film/TV—because in fiction, you have no limitations on budget and shooting schedule, nor must you contend with petulant A-list talent who insist on choosing their own jankity clothes, history be damned. There is quite literally NO REASON why an author of a novel should get the details of fashion so deeply wrong, but (speaking as someone who once put down a book in disgust when the protagonist pulled a corset off over her head like a tee-shirt) it happens. Often.

So i felt like metaphorically high-fiving Chee from the moment his narrator began to describe a custom dressform in the Worth atelier as essential to the sartorial panache of an arriviste. I loved the way at one point Chee detailed the embroidery techniques designed to hide structural seamlines on the bodice of a gown, and i wished i had a colleague reading along with me to share my thumbs-ups when he mentioned in passing the stitching of weights into the hems of voluminous skirts to influence their motion in performance. In fact, with that in mind, this would be a fantastic discussion book for a group of costumers, and an excellent audiobook to listen to while, say, tatting, pad-stitching, or tambour-beading.

And yet, i don't wish to imply that the story is merely an excuse for pornagraphically-intricate fashion descriptions--these sorts of details are seamlessly incorporated into the writing, the same as any other bit of scene-setting. It all exists in there to serve the plot, which brings me to...well, the plot in all its glorious sprawl.

I’ve read some criticism of the implausibility of the characters’ lives in a few traditional book-review marketplaces. I would argue that they are perhaps implausible to those with no familiarity with the memoirs of mid-19th-century demimondaines, courtesans, and opera singers; but scholars of those women’s lives, however, will discern the inspiration of real people and events throughout Queen of the Night. I don’t just mean the obvious ones—Napoleon III and his appetite for mistresses or Pauline Viardot-García and her “two husbands”—but the cameos of or tributes to lesser-known filles de joie like Cora Pearl, La Païva, and Mogador, too.


Should you feel the need to read a more traditional review before taking on a novel just for the clothing descriptions, take a pass through Ilana Masad's review on Electric Literature. It provides a good overview of the epic, circuitous story. You don’t need to be a fan of opera to follow along (Chee often synopsizes the storylines of the operas which feature in the soprano’s career) but if you are, you will recognize that the novel itself follows operatic tropes of melodrama and tragedy.

Like many operas, it’s long—over 500 pages—and it does shift around in time and place, so if you prefer your novels to have linear plots in which A leads to B which is followed by C, you’ll struggle. Me, i love a complex puzzle box of a book, and Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night is one i’ll return to again, much like a favorite libretto or score.


[1] If you're a fan of Worth but Maison Félix doesn't ring a bell, check out this great feature on the FIDM blog with loads of droolworthy images!

Comments

I read the ARC of QOTN and was pretty impressed with the clothing talk, except in a couple of spots, which I wonder if they got ironed out in the final edit; at one point the protagonist and her friend can't stand close enough to each other to talk because of their crinolines, yet at one point she says she's wearing a bustle. I swear the two didn't go together...

Did you know there is a new novel out about the later life of Sisi? There is some clothing talk, but nothing like what's in QOTN.
Hmm, i do recollect mention of a bustle, but i think that comes after she debuts what's described as the "new silhouette." Which, since the book spans from the 1860s to the 1880s, perhaps those two references fall to either side of the silhouette shift. I'd have to reread it with that specific thing in mind.

Regarding the Sisi novel, is it this one:

http://www.amazon.com/Sisi-Empress-Her-Own-Novel-ebook/dp/B00Z3FYSAK

I'm torn. It sounds interesting, but the comparison to Phillippa Gregory novels gives me pause. I used to read LOADS of those as a teenager (along with Victoria Holt and Nora Roberts) but they aren't my taste these days. Still, i might check out the sample. Thanks for mentioning it!
I thought that the two descriptions were very close in time- as in, days apart only, and in the 1860s- but I could (very well) be mistaken. I do tend to lose track of time in novels that have a long time span.

Yes, that's the book about Sisi. It was a pleasant read, but not stunning. I had conflicted feelings about Sisi as a person and as a ruler, and, other than the assassination, the book has little of the grand drama that you'd expect from a book about royals. It was sort of 'and then this happened'.
I do plan to reread QotN at some point, so i will keep an eye out for what you mention. It's possible that it did get ironed out in post-ARC edits.

This one was particularly hard to track time periods in--i did have to go back and reread a few sections several times to figure out when i thougt something was happening, and gauge it against what i knew from historical events (like when Eugenie fled France, or when Napoleon III died, etc.)