This is a very imaginative and clever re-telling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairy-tale set in Prohibition NYC. The princesses are flappers and their father is some kind of business magnate trying to protect his family legacy without a son, the poor man. He keeps them locked up in their large home to protect their virtue and reputation, because that’s a surefire way to earn the obedience of teenagers.
Here’s the overview from Goodreads: “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.”
On the level of pure entertainment value, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club delivered. Valentine does an excellent job modernizing (-ish) the fairy-tale, and she strikes a nice balance between developing the setting of the 1920’s and building enough complex characters to hang her plot around. The story itself is well-paced and imbued with satisfying dramatic tension, as the “princesses” must avoid being caught not only by their father, but also the police in speakeasy raids. Jo is a particularly sympathetic character; as the oldest daughter she bears all of the responsibility for her sisters’ well-being and acts as a shield against their father. The younger sisters tend not to appreciate her efforts, never having met their father and seeing him more as an idealized figure and her as the actual authority. It’s heartbreaking at times when she, and her earnest efforts to protect them, are dismissed and undermined.
I would have more unreservedly enjoyed the book if it wasn’t sometimes thematically confusing. Being a fairy-tale adaptation, I want to give it a lot of leeway in terms of not having to explain certain things that were taken directly from the source material, or that tend to be accepted prima facie in fairy tales as a part of the worldbuilding. However, were this book to stand on its own without the Twelve Dancing Princesses, there are a few elements that are just not developed very well, particularly given the attention to detail on the historical setting and the effort to bring this story into a real time and place.
The biggest of these issues is the whole question of captivity and the father being the warden. There is a lot of telling and not showing about how he’s keeping them locked up, and a lot of exposition from Jo’s perspective about how cold and frightening he is. And, sure, he has never been upstairs to even meet many of his youngest daughters, and he gives them only the tiniest monthly allowance to clothe themselves in the bare necessities. But the conceit that he literally keeps them locked indoors is not really reinforced — there are no antidotes of “what happened the last time they tried to go out,” or even a conversation early on between him and Jo where he refuses something of the like. To my recollection, the closest the book comes is a bit where a young Jo wasn’t allowed to go see movies with a governess (or something) so the governess sneaks her out a few times. This on its own is not enough to show, generally, that “the girls aren’t allowed outside.” There are a lot of plausible and decidedly non-cruel reasons why a young girl wouldn’t be allowed to go to a movie. So, unless I somehow blacked out a huge portion of the beginning, this foundational aspect of the story is not really explained in a satisfactory way. And again, because this is based on a fairy tale, I’m not that bothered by it, but as an adaptation, the writing and setting were definitely on the realistic and pragmatic side rather than the fantastical, so it was a bit jarring that there wasn’t a lot of detail there.
Overall, as I said earlier, this was an enjoyable book. It gave me a good impression of Valentine’s writing and has me interested in reading more. I like the ingenuity she showed in adapting a classic story but updating it to have modern, relevant themes and a real-world setting. For those not distracted by wanting a bit more world-building, this will be a winner.