Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"The Girls at the Kingfisher Club" by Genevieve Valentine

There's nothing quite as wonderful as coming across a book you weren't aware of and having it turn into an unexpected delight. That's what happened when I picked up The Girls at the Kingfisher Club at the bookstore the other day, drawn by the cover and then the jacket description. Seriously, the twelve dancing princesses set in the speakeasies of Prohibition New York? How could I pass that up?

As a writer, it seems to me that the biggest challenge in turning a short fairy tale about twelve sisters into a full-length novel is making the characters distinct enough to satisfy the reader, and author Genevieve Valentine does a wonderful job. I was a thrown once or twice early on by the author's tendency to use parenthetical asides to show what some of the girls were thinking, in order to give them motivation, but I got used to it and soon forgot that it seemed odd.

The main character is Jo, the eldest daughter. Ever since their mother died, essentially from being used as a brood mare by a husband who wanted a son, Jo has been the go-between for her father and her younger sisters. He sees his daughters as a detriment to his social and financial ambitions, and therefore keeps them shuttered away in attic rooms -- they don't go to school or walking in the park or even to church. Instead they look out the windows, read books from their home library or glance through clothing catalogs, do some mending, and occasionally hear snatches of the infectious jazz music that has come to New York.

All of this changes one night when Lou, the second eldest, threatens to run away out of frustration and desperation. Jo quickly realizes she must divert that restless energy or risk losing her sister, so she takes Lou and the next two sisters out dancing at one of the speakeasies. The freedom is intoxicating, and a new sisterly tradition is born, with the younger sisters (there are two sets of twins, by the way) gradually added to the outings. The sisters become experts at sneaking down the back stairs at midnight, shoes in hand, to catch taxis in the back alley, and Jo trains them never to give out their names or encourage their partners to pursue them off the dance floor.

And so it continues until the father announces that it's time to start marrying off the girls -- and it seems he's willing to take almost any applicant as long as the price is right. Lest this premise sound too fluffy or too "romance novel," keep in mind that (minor spoiler ahead) this was a time period in which a father could easily have his unmarried daughters committed to an asylum for "insanity," so the stakes for Jo and her sisters are very real indeed. Jo is consumed with worry over her sisters' fates and determined not to show it; as a result, they call her "General," half affectionately and half resentfully. Lou, in particular, suspects that Jo might be out to save herself, but Jo proves her wrong in a very moving way.

Technically, I suppose this might be called a young adult historical fiction, but as is the case with so many YA titles, nobody is too old to enjoy this sophisticated, atmospheric novel. Highly recommended.

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[This is silly of me, but I feel a little self-conscious that it may seem all I do is gush over the books and stories I read, or the movies and live performances I see. So it may seem as though my taste is not terribly discriminating. That's not actually the case, but I just don't like reviewing things I haven't enjoyed, unless I feel I have something important to say about it. But for the record, against the fifteen books I've read so far in 2015, I've also stopped reading six others. And just last night I watched a movie, certain I was going to love it and looking forward to reviewing it, and .... no. So I guess what I mean is that when I say I love something, it means I've really enjoyed it.

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