Reading is the only thing in the world I am good at. A lifetime of reading, fifteen years of working in bookstores, and libraries, and an obsession with the written word makes me qualified enough to talk someone's ear off about books. Now I am getting more ARCs than I have room for in the house. Let me get back to reading them!
Thanks to this epic novel, and its author, Alexander Chee I have had every aria mentioned in this book stuck in my head for weeks. Right now I can't get Carmen's Habanera out of my head, which is kind of annoying since I know the tune, but not the words.
If I was being completely honest with myself I would give this book only four stars: the story gets a little confusing, and at times seems a little too much, and I hate HATE that there are no quotations marks. If this were a book about an ordinary topic I might demote it a star for these minor issues. However, this is a novel about no ordinary topic, it is a novel about opera, which at its perfection is a little confusing, and a little too much.
I love that someone has created a novel about opera, especially opera in the 19th century, when it was one of the only forms of entertainment. Since I grew up near Santa Fe I have developed a love for the opera that has surprised myself. Alexander Chee obviously has done a lot of work and research into it, and I appreciate the way he folded the stories of the great operas into this story of a woman with many names and disguises, whose adventures takes her from Midwest America to New York City, to Paris, to Germany, and back again. The descriptions of the clothes, and the people were amazing.
What I liked most about the book was that it focused so much on women, and the ways they survived despite their different classes, backgrounds, educations, and talents. In the pantheon of great male composers and writers of the 1800s it is easy to overlook the equally great women who not only mastered music and writing, but who were kind enough to encourage the men in their lives to do the same. George Sand, and Pauline Viardot were strong examples of this, and I enjoyed reading their fictionalized characters in this novel.
I was truly inspired to learn more about all the characters in this novel. I had never heard of Empress Eugenie, but I am obsessed with her portraits now. I had never heard of the Comtesse di Castiglione, and now I can't stop Googling and Pinning images of her in her knockout clothes. I can't believe how modern she looks, like she's got a million followers on Instagram. I recommend reading this with the ability to search for pictures of the real-life characters as you go, and the ability to stream every piece of music mentioned in this book. Listening to Chopin's nocturne as Pauline Viardot plays it in the book was haunting.
Writing a story about a woman who is determined only the survive on her terms was refreshing. Although Lilliet Berne understands the way she is trapped in her life, she makes the best of what she has. She is neither overly naive, nor overly aggressive. I would like to think I would acted like she did under those circumstances. When she makes mistakes she lives with the consequences, but her mind never seems to let go of trying to make it better. Sometimes going through life is about the ballast. How do we maintain balance to keep the boat from tipping over? The woman who becomes Lilliet Berne understand this. I wish more characters in novels did.
It is for these reasons that I give this book 5+ stars. Thanks for finally finishing it, Mr. Chee. It was well worth the wait.
A list of things I Googled/Pinterested/Interlibrary Loaned/listened to:
Comtesse de Castiglione
Lucia di Lammermore by Donizetti
Operas by Viardot and Turgenev
Il Trovatore by Verdi
Norma by Faust
Fall of Napoleon III empire
La Sonnambula by Bellini
And score!!! Lucia Di Lammermore will be performed at Santa Fe Opera for their 2017 season! I've got my tickets already!