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The Girls at the Kingfisher Club


The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

Just in case you haven't read the Brothers Grimm’s story "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" recently, let me bring you up to speed. Twelve beautiful princesses are kept firmly under lock and key by their father, the king. Each morning, however, their dancing slippers are worn through, as if they had been dancing all night. The king, determined to discover his daughters' secret, promises to bestow his kingdom (and his daughter's hand) to any man who can reveal it. After several young suitors fail in their attempt (and, in some versions of the story, are put to death as a result), an old soldier, aided by an enchanted cloak and some important advice given him by an old crone, successfully follows the girls to an underground castle where they dance the night away. The soldier spends three nights gathering evidence of the girls' midnight voyages, and at the end, he claims the oldest daughter's hand in marriage.

I always liked this story when I was younger. The sisters' successful attempts to evade their father and the other suitors seemed subversive somehow, and, of course, I liked the dancing elements. The most disappointing part of the plot, for me at least, was the so-called happy ending, which also puts an end to the sisters' freedom.

"THE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB is a winning combination of history and fantasy, complete with a bittersweet love story and an unlikely heroine."

When I saw that Genevieve Valentine, whose previous novel was the steampunk-influenced MECHANIQUE, was publishing a retelling of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," I was intrigued. Her novel, THE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB, loosely retells the story, placing it in New York City during Prohibition and making the sisters aspiring flappers.

The opening of the novel is pretty dark, as the sisters are sentenced to a life of isolation in the upper reaches of their family's brownstone. Their father, who was determined to keep trying for a son (until his wife finally died in the attempt), keeps his 12 daughters --- some of whom he's never actually met --- hidden away to avoid the reach of ugly gossip. The girls are allowed out only in groups of two or three at a time, and cannot speak or interact with anyone. As the girls get older, their desire for independence, freedom and contact with the outside world grows, and they start to find ways to escape their father's oppressive rules. The older girls, in particular, sneak away to the cinema, and when they see dancing on screen for the first time, they are inspired to learn to dance themselves.

As soon as they get old (and brave) enough, Jo, the oldest daughter, engineers a plan for her and her sisters to go dancing at one of the underground nightclubs she's heard about. Jo, whose serious demeanor and knack for organization earn her the nickname "The General" from her sisters, loves dancing but rarely allows herself to indulge --- someone has to be in charge, after all. But following a police raid at their favorite club, the Kingfisher, Jo is reunited with one of her earliest and most alluring dance partners, a bootlegger named Tom, and finds herself torn between her responsibilities to her sisters and the desires of her heart.

Whether or not readers are familiar with the original fairy tale, there is much to enjoy and appreciate in Valentine's reimagining of it. The story starts off a bit slowly, but as soon as the girls start going to the nightclubs, the tempo picks up. The author does an admirable job of differentiating among the sisters; although not all of them play major roles in the novel, they all do have unique personalities. Valentine's prose is just a little on the dreamy side, fitting for a fairy tale retelling, and it's full of playful wordplay that keeps the book from seeming too serious. THE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB is a winning combination of history and fantasy, complete with a bittersweet love story and an unlikely heroine.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on June 27, 2014

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club
by Genevieve Valentine

  • Publication Date: June 30, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
  • ISBN-10: 1476739099
  • ISBN-13: 9781476739090