Everyone was raving about this book by Alexander Chee last year, and since it’s about an opera singer in mid-nineteenth century Paris with a deadly secret, how could I not be interested? I picked up a copy not long after it came out and finally got a chance to read it over the holidays.
I was immensely disappointed.
Not because the book was bad. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the writing. In fact, I think I would have enjoyed it more if it had not been so hyped up. As it was, my expectations were too high, and thus, I was disappointed.
The main character goes by the name of Lilliet Berne, a name she took off a tombstone when she was traveling across the American countryside in order to get on an east-bound ship. I can’t remember what her name was before she took up that pseudonym. She may never have told the reader, or maybe she did and I just don’t remember.
Anyway, her whole family dies of the flu and she makes her way to Paris in her attempt to get to the French countryside, where she has been told her only remaining family members live. On the way she literally joins the circus, then becomes a cancan dancer, a prostitute, and a maid to the Empress while spying on her. Then she finally gets some proper vocal training, falls in love, survives the Siege of Paris, and witnesses the murder of her lover before being returned to captivity as another singer’s personal paramour, from which she is expected to begin her singing career.
She becomes a huge success as an opera singer with many admirers and the book spends most of its 552 pages flipping back and forth from the “present” in which Lilliet is a fabulously successful opera singer, and her past, beginning with the death of her family and following her all the way up until the beginning of her career as an opera singer.
While the reader is learning about her past, Lilliet in the “present” is trying to uncover who outed her super scandalous backstory. She receives word of a novel based on the speculations of what happened to a young singer who disappeared many years ago. They want to turn the novel into and opera and have Lilliet originate the role of said mysterious singer.
The problem is Lilliet was the young singer who disappeared onto the streets of Paris and emerged as a sensation, although the novelist doesn’t know that. Despite the fact that it is rooted very deeply in fantasy, the novel bears some disquieting resemblances to the path Lilliet actually took to her current life. She feels certain someone ratted her out, but she doesn’t know who. She has three suspects, but they all turn out to be dead ends.
The identity of her outer was such an excellent twist that I refuse to spoil it here. I will say that, after all the time jumping, and once Lilliet had discovered the true author of the novel, I finally felt invested in the story and its outcome, but by that time I only had a hundred pages or so left in the book. As much as I understand the desire to use the time jumps to draw out the suspense, I think it just left me feeling disjointed and confused.
I think the time-jumping is my only real issue because I quite liked the main character. I’ve had a few conversations with men over the years about whether it’s possible for men to write convincingly from the female perspective. Well, Chee does an admirable job. If I hadn’t known it was written by a man, I might have suspected it of being written by a woman – that’s how convincingly he portrayed her and how much I liked her.
That said, I hesitate to highly recommend this book. If you haven’t read it yet, but you think you might want to, I recommend putting it off for a year or two until you’ve forgotten all the hype. That way you’ll probably enjoy it more than I did.
What did you guys read this week? Anything you felt didn’t live up to your expectations?