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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. (source)

Everyone kept telling me to read this, so hey friends: YOU WIN. You were all 100% correct, and I shouldn't have looked at you dubiously when I heard the words "fairy tale retelling". I apologize for doubting you, especially Ana, since you think I would've learned my lesson after Chime and The 10 PM Question specifically (I will never learn my lesson, probably).

I have a weird relationship with fairy tale retellings, which is mainly that I don't really like original fairy tales that much because I never read them at the age they might have made an impression on me. I'm terrified of the disappointment that statement may cause certain people (I'M SORRY, please forgive me, etc.). I like modern re-imaginings plenty, but prefer them in different packaging, like with Ever After, or Tangled, and in film form most of the time. Plus, I had never heard of the fairy tale this was based on, and when I read a synopsis of the fairy tale in question, I somehow had an idea there was going to be magical realism.

Magical realism is my nemesis. I blame not growing up with fairy tales. I was too busy watching Care Bears. Care Bears, in fact, are not all that subtle about their their magic. It shoots gratuitously from their midsections. Maybe this is why I am bad at nuance?

Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a port of the Twelve Dancing Princess into Prohibition Era New York, and there's no magical realism as far as my suspicious eyes can see, beyond the metaphorical magic the sisters find in the freedom they get to know when dancing. It does a wonderful job of porting over the idea without making the book fantasy. When their father locks them away from the world for not being the male heir that he wanted, they learn to sneak out of the house, into the city, and find that the world will welcome rule breakers just fine, and, as the story unravels, embrace them. Their freedom to dance and stay together is put at risk when their father begins the process of marrying each of them off. Being locked in the upper floors of a house is terrifying enough, but the true specter here is marriage that threatens the tiny bit of freedom and joy at being together the sisters have been able to carve out for themselves.

That seems almost reductive, having read it, because there's so much about this story to love. Jo's fierce protectiveness is a thread throughout, both of her sisters, but also of her own emotions. The emotional distance it puts between her and her sisters, especially the younger ones is gutting. No joke, this story was particularly miserable for me because of the father. I identified so much with Jo because what a horrible situation to have to deal with, forced to confront her father's utter disinterest in his own children, including her. Jo's so strong, having to constantly compartmentalize her own desires so her sisters can have the bare minimum of emotional, carefree lives she was denied by order of birth and her gender. Jo waited and waited for the brother that would never come, the brother that might free all of them. This book gave me some intense personal feelings! It's not like I spent ten years of my life wishing I had a brother or wishing I was a boy o and hating myself for being female because I saw how disappointed my father was as I aged, ha ha ha ha ha sob. Surprise emotional punch!

The writing was so lovely, too. I think I've only read Valentine's nonfiction? Maybe some short fiction, too, but I might be misremembering or thinking of someone else. But wow, I'm blown away by her character skills.

You'd think with 12+ characters to keep straight, you'd lose a sense of them, but every sister is thoughtfully drawn, and the side characters are equally complicated. In a book of this length? I'm impressed with how much I felt that I knew each of them so intimately, especially the younger sisters, the ones Jo knows less well. Of course, we inevitably spend the most time with Jo, and to a lesser extent, Lou, and so of course I was most invested in their story (and oh, does this pay off).

Ana talked a lot about the reality of being a woman during this time period and what this means for the story, but what I like the most about the way this particular iteration ended was the happy ending, because maybe it is a little bit like a fairy tale — in our real world, would all the sisters have escaped the fate their father threatened them with? The end is bittersweet but still so joyous. The distance between the sisters grows, either geographically or emotionally, but by the time Jo welcomes them back to her, all their relationships feel so much stronger for the distance. They're solidified as family in a way being trapped in a house for years and years, under each other's feet with no way to escape, could never have accomplished. These women have to give themselves up to the world, but the world gives them each other back as they discover who they truly are and what they want from a life their father was going to deny them.

I'm also happy to report that if you're missing historical context, it's a-okay, because the story gives you what you need to know and doesn't drown you in a history lesson. This did make me want to go read tons of books on Prohibition and the history of the dances the girls do, so if you're the type of person who gets tempted to read nonfiction because of historical fiction: BEWARE, this book is dangerous! But so, so brilliant, so maybe risk it, anyway? This book has a place on my favorites shelf forever.

(And just look at the other reviews section. Surely we can't all be wrong!)

Additional Notes
  • I've never read a book with so many parentheticals! They will either drive you up the wall, or you will love them. I loved them, because I felt like they underlined Jo's position in the narrative. Jo's inner life, such a mystery to those around her (even the people she loves), was a parenthetical to the existence she carved out with soft steps down stairs, trips in cabs, and watching her sisters dance and dance around her.

  • Perhaps other people might feel the same about Tom's place in the story. I was, somewhat unfortunately, spoiled for the role Tom plays. I wonder what I would have thought if I hadn't known, and had rammed into the twist on my own. Since I was spoiled for it, by the time I reached it I had already come to terms with the fact that realism or not, sometimes fairy tales call for magic, and a prince to rescue you, for you to love and be loved by them in return. The story needs someone to give you what you most want in the world even if it's not the happiness you both might've wanted. The happy ever after here in this case are built by marriage, but not in the way we expect.

  • Rose and Lily. Rose and Lily.

Other reviews:
things mean a lot, The Book Smugglers, The Literary Omnivore, Reading the End, Here There Be Books, Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Reviews, Adventures in Reading, By Singing Light, Genre-Bending, yours?

Date: 2014-10-01 07:41 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I love fairy tale retellings, with or without magic, so this sounds great. Also, I really like parentheticals, when done well, so another reason for me to add this to Mount TBR.

Date: 2014-10-03 01:58 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
This book is SO good! At one point I was afraid it would be just bleak unremitting tragedy and then Valentine pulls this marvelous ending off and yeah. I loved it. Here's my review:

Maureen E

Date: 2014-10-03 11:58 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Aw, yay, you loved it! I did tooooooo! The gender roles and everything were so great, and I'm thrilled to see Genevieve Valentine getting the love I've always felt she deserved.

Date: 2014-10-05 03:31 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]

I am so glad you adored it, because it is solid gold. And I hope the Valentine nonfiction you've read is either her TV criticism—on point!—or her awards ceremony fashion coverage, which is fantastic.


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