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The Queen of the Night

Alexander Chee | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | January 26, 2016 | 5,292 words
Posted inBooks, Featured, Fiction, First Chapters, Story

The Queen of the Night

The first chapter from Alexander Chee’s much-anticipated second novel.
Illustration by Carl J. Ferrero, Design by Sarah Samudre

Alexander Chee | First Chapter Exclusive: The Queen of the Night | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | Feb. 2015 | 21 minutes (5,292 words)

Our latest Longreads Exclusive is the first chapter from The Queen of the Night, the second novel by award-winning writer Alexander Chee, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor A. N. Devers

“In the opening pages of The Queen of the Night, we are transported to a celebratory night at The Luxembourg Palace in Paris, 1882, where a legendary opera singer, Lilliet Berne, is trying to avoid attention (self-conscious of a poorly-designed dress she must wear), only to step accidentally into an intimate conversation with a writer who wants to put her at the center of a new opera. The one trophy missing on her crowded shelf is an original role in a new work, and she throws caution away as the stranger flatters her with the offer. As the soprano with the delicate voice tempts fate, we learn of her long-kept secrets, deep ambition, quick wit, and keen powers of observation. In Berne, Alexander Chee has created a fully-formed diva from a glamorous age that has long since passed, yet her role as her own mythology builder is as contemporary as ever, as seen daily in tabloids and online, as actors, athletes, fashionistas, Kardashians, politicians, Real Housewives, and yoginis shape their stories for column inches and Instagram followers—some, like Berne, have true talent. Chee’s Queen of the Night is a spectacular and balletic historical novel, its intricacies offer insights not only about fame, but also about the Second Empire in France and its rich musical and literary history.”

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WHEN IT BEGAN, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands. He is perhaps a demon or a god in disguise, of­fering you a chance at either the fulfillment of a dream or a trap for the soul. A comic element—the soprano arrives in the wrong dress—and it decides her fate.

The year was 1882. The palace was the Luxembourg Palace; the ball, the Sénat Bal, held at the beginning of autumn. It was still warm, and so the garden was used as well. I was the soprano.

I was Lilliet Berne.

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