The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a reimagining of the fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses set in 1920s New York city. It features twelve lovely and lively sisters, their miserly and evil king-like father, speak easies, bootleggers and flappers. The girls’ mother has died and dad, disappointed in having no male heir, has kept his girls imprisoned their entire lives in the upstairs of their Fifth Avenue house. Mr. Hamilton is a shrewd businessman but terrible father. Oldest daughter Jo, in order to prevent second daughter Lou (her closest friend) from running away, proposes sneaking the older girls out at night to dance. Over the course of 8 years, all the daughters reach the age to go out dancing and their haunt of choice is the Kingfisher Club.
… the Kingfisher was small enough to be out of mind and dark enough to slip into; there were faces of all colors on the dance floor and sometimes two men cheek to cheek, and she wanted a place that could keep secrets.
Each of the twelve sisters (including two sets of twins) is unique, with her own favorite dance and/or skill. Jo is the one who taught her sisters to dance based on the few movies she and Lou managed to sneak out and see. Jo is the “General,” and her word is law with her sisters. She organizes the trips and keeps everyone safe. While they fear and sometimes resent Jo, they are more terrified of their father. Some of the girls have never even met him. They all love dancing and, in order to maintain the every-other-nightly trips to the club, follow Jo’s rules:
Never tell a man your name. Never mention where you live, or any place we go. Never let a man take you anywhere; if you take one into the alley to neck, tell one of your sisters, and come back as soon as you can.
Never fall for a man so hard you can’t pull your heart back in time.
We’ll leave without you if we have to.
The girls follow these rules and enjoy their nights dancing, coming to be known as “the princesses” at the club, but a few problems arise to complicate their situation. First, their father reads in the newspaper about clubs where gangs of young society women are showing up and dancing, and this makes him suspicious. Second, the Kingfisher club is raided while the girls are there. And third, as the girls get older, the rule about falling in love gets harder to follow. Moreover, Mr. Hamilton decides to start marrying off his girls to men of his own choosing.
I absolutely loved this novel. It has drama and humor; even as I sped through it, I regretted that I was getting closer to the end. The writing is wonderful, with each sister and a few other characters getting their own unique voice. Jo, the main character, is especially interesting — a smart and resourceful woman who takes on a leadership role at the expense of her own happiness. At one critical point in the story, the sisters are separated. Jo, alone for the first time in her life, has to reinvent herself and try to track down her siblings. I also enjoyed one particularly humorous scene where Mr. Hamilton holds a dinner for the four men he has chosen for his four eldest daughters. The girls’ preparation for this event is very funny, but I was on the edge of my seat wondering if they would be able to escape these forced arrangements.
I’ve read a few novels lately that reimagine fairy tales, and what I love about them is that the female characters are empowered to save themselves, to make their own choices and submit to the consequences instead of fate or someone else’s assistance being foisted upon them. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club fits in with this genre. The fairy tale becomes a love story mostly about sisters and, incidentally, about some of the men they meet; and it’s a story about young women becoming independent and finding happiness in that.