Genevieve Valentine managed to become one of my top ten authors of all time with just one book. Mechanique was so close to perfection that from the moment I finished reading, I wanted to pick it up again. Short stories by the same author had a similar effect and this second novel of hers was no different.
Published by: Atria Books, 2014
Hardcover: 277 pages
My rating: 8/10
First sentence: By 1927 there were twelve girls who danced all night and never gave names, but by then the men had given up asking and called them all Princess.
- The Twelve Dancing Princesses
From award-winning author Genevieve Valentine, a “gorgeous and bewitching” (Scott Westerfeld) reimagining of the fairytale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses as flappers during the Roaring Twenties in Manhattan.
Jo, the firstborn, “The General” to her eleven sisters, is the only thing the Hamilton girls have in place of a mother. She is the one who taught them how to dance, the one who gives the signal each night, as they slip out of the confines of their father’s townhouse to await the cabs that will take them to the speakeasy. Together they elude their distant and controlling father, until the day he decides to marry them all off.
The girls, meanwhile, continue to dance, from Salon Renaud to the Swan and, finally, the Kingfisher, the club they come to call home. They dance until one night when they are caught in a raid, separated, and Jo is thrust face-to-face with someone from her past: a bootlegger named Tom whom she hasn’t seen in almost ten years. Suddenly Jo must weigh in the balance not only the demands of her father and eleven sisters, but those she must make of herself.
With The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, award-winning writer Genevieve Valentine takes her superb storytelling gifts to new heights, joining the leagues of such Jazz Age depicters as Amor Towles and Paula McClain, and penning a dazzling tale about love, sisterhood, and freedom.
This will be a difficult review to write because as much as I adore Genevieve Valentine’s writing style – and it is quite unlike anything else I’ve read – The Girls at the Kingfisher Club had a very tough time competing with Mechanique. Excepting Cat Valente, no other book has hit me as hard in recent years as that steampunk extravaganza. And yet, a fairy tale retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” set in the Roaring Twenties? That sounded wonderful.
With a retelling of this particular fairy tale, the hardest part must and will always be bringing twelve – I repeat: twelve! – characters to life and giving them distinct personalities. One or the other will always have to be a little more vague, or else you need a 1500 page novel to introduce them all. Not so Genevieve Valentine. Her prose is precise and streamlined and, maybe because of that, always hits the mark. Every word is carefully chosen for the biggest effect. It is her careful word choice (and the little remarks she throws into the story within parentheses) that make her characters feel real in almost no time at all.
Jo – The General – is the strict eldest daughter of the bunch, the one who keeps the Hamilton girls together, who organises their bi-nightly outings, who makes sure nobody gets left behind. In many ways, she functions as the girls’ mother figure, but she dances on the edge of resembling her father more – and she struggles with the knowledge that she might, someday in a terrible world where everything goes wrong, become like him. For Jo, the number one concern will always be Lou, her closest sister. The relationship between the two is so beautiful and heartbreaking and as much about what’s not said as about what is. Lou knows Jo and Jo knows Lou – and so they converse without words, even without glances. It is a pleasure to read about them.
The younger the girls get, the less we learn about them. But Valentine made sure to give them all a personality, even if it has little time to shine. With two pairs of twins, one sister who is a lesbian, one whose beauty far surpasses that of anyone else, and some who just really, really love to dance, you’ve got twelve heads who each dream of one thing: freedom.
The threat of being discovered always lingers in the background, and their ruthless father makes sure they know just how little he cares about them as people. He never forgave his late wife for not giving him a son and marrying off his numerous daughters, one by one to the highest bidder, seems like a deal worth making. So for a long time, this is also a depressing story. Twelve girls, locked up and forbidden to be themselves. All the more amazing when they do break out of their life.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that they can flee from their oppressive father. Because what happens afterwards is not exactly a horseride into the sunset with their fairy tale prince. What comes after is hard work, learning who they are, finding a place in the world. And for Jo, it means letting go, giving the girls room to find themselves, to stop being The General. The emotional weight of certain scenes is astounding and the ending left me half laughing with happiness, and half sobbing with uncertainty.
She was still trying to discover how people related to each other, and how you met the world when you weren’t trying to hide something from someone. It was a lesson slow in coming.
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is about dancing girls, sure. But it is also an emotional journey, a coming-of-age story, a tale of amazing women finding where they belong. And I heartily recommend everybody pick it up. And once you’re done, do yourself a favor and read Mechanique.
RATING: 8/10 – Excellent