As sharp, sophisticated and refreshing as a flute of champagne, Genevieve Valentine’s “The Girls at the Kingfisher Club” will make you want to strap on dancing shoes and find an all-night speakeasy to call your own.
Atria Books ($24)
It may seem odd to call this historical novel a modern fairy tale, but that’s exactly how it feels as you’re reading. A retelling of the Brothers Grimm’s “Twelve Dancing Princesses” set in New York City mid-Prohibition, the 12 sisters of this story leap off the page in three dimensions, as believable as any modern siblings.
Jo is the oldest of 12 sisters, all conceived by her ill-fated mother in an attempt to produce an heir for their father’s estate. Their mother dies trying, and their father is left with a household of girls he has no need or love for.
His solution is to lock them up tight, safe from the world’s wicked temptations, until he can find suitable suitors for each of them. As a distraction from their imprisonment, Jo begins to teach her sisters to dance.
And when the confines of their house squeeze too tight, when some sisters begin to wonder if it might be worth risking life on the streets just for a chance to be free, Jo devises a plan to give them a taste of liberty — enough to dull the misery and keep them together and safe at the end of the night. They begin to sneak out of the house and into Manhattan’s underground speakeasies, dancing their cares away from midnight to dawn.
Out of necessity, Jo becomes “the General” to her sisters, marshaling them as strictly as any soldiers. As the oldest, she knows exactly how bad life could get if the real world discovered their identity and if their father learned about their nighttime escapades.
Twelve sisters make for a lot of characters to juggle, and the author herself acknowledges the struggle on the opening page, noting that “it was hardly fair to even ask a man to count” the girls. But Jo makes as strong an anchor for the readers as she is to her younger sisters, and while she carries the narrative for the first third, we slowly come to recognize the other players.
Lou, second-in-command, is Jo’s tough-as-nails lieutenant, there to provide backup when the troops threaten to stray but also to remind Jo that she is human, not just a general in dancing heels.
Ella is everybody’s sweetheart, a quiet beauty who’s best at manipulating their father into small favors; Hattie and Mattie, the identical twins attached at the hip; Araminta, the romantic old soul who only ever dances the waltz. By the time you reach the book’s halfway point, you’ll realize you can rattle off the names of all 12 girls without even realizing you were memorizing them.
But the girls’ characterization isn’t the only thing that makes Ms. Valentine’s first foray into historical fiction sparkle. (She is better known for her science fiction.) Although no fairies or magical other worlds appear in this retelling, the New York City of the Roaring ’20s provides magic and mystery enough. Every plain back door could lead to an otherworldly club; that plain unmarked alleyway with the rusty staircase could be the entrance to the grandest ballroom you ever did see.
There’s a second world under the one everybody sees, a world accessible only if you know the address and the right password, and if you show up at the right hour of the night.
It’s an irresistible fantasy that has made imitation speakeasies resurge in popularity lately, and that fantasy suffuses the girls’ story of dancing in the face of impossible odds.
The further you delve into the book, the more apt you’ll find General Jo’s nickname. She really is at war, a war of demure smiles and feminine wiles, carefully plotted to earn her sisters the advantage in a time when women weren’t yet permitted lives of their own.
The tension that builds between Jo and her father will make your heart race, and the emotions the sisters share for the world, boys and most notably each other (at turns good, bad and painfully honest) will have you wanting to pick up the phone or walk down the hall for a heart-to-heart with your own siblings (whether blood siblings or the chosen kind).
Ms. Valentine said, in one of the effective parenthetical asides that dot the novel, that “some stories worked better if they weren’t true.” But this story, whimsical as it sounds on the surface, rings true in all the ways that count.
Ellen Goodlett (email@example.com) is a Pittsburgh native and writer living in New York.