The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is Genevive Valentine’s retelling of the fairytale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” as a historical fiction set in 1920’s America. The king in the tale has become a wealthy businessman who, embarrassed by his failure to have a son, keeps his daughters in the top two stories of his house. Desperate to escape but penniless themselves, the daughters sneak out at night to dance in speakeasies. As they refuse to give their names, men call each of them “princess.” This continues until one day their father tells them that they are to marry men of his choice, making the situation intolerable and requiring a change the girls are not sure how to make.
One of the difficulties anyone who wants to tell this tale faces is the number of princesses. Giving twelve young women adequate character development and attention is a complex task. Valentine tackles it by telling the tale primarily from the point of view of Jo, the eldest daughter. She is the one who has been delegated the task of keeping the sisters in line, and it is she who worries over how to get them out of their imprisonment and what they will do after they leave the house. It is also she who first learns to dance and leads the others into their adventure. Other girls are seen through Jo’s eyes and several are given brief segments where the point of view switches to their perspective. Although some are more fully developed than others, the end result is twelve distinct individuals, each with her own hopes, fears, and beliefs.
Turning a fairy tale into a straight historical fiction and setting it so close in time and place to contemporary readers is an interesting genre twist: On the whole fairy tales are kept in fantasy land and/or set “long ago and far away.” Again, Valentine manages this well, recreating 1920’s New York with its glitter, its dark streets, and its uncertainties. Readers familiar with “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” will be able to map the tale against The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, matching the king to the father, the mysterious underworld to the speakeasies, and so on. Readers who do not know the tale will still enjoy the pleasure of a time and place recreated.
The book keeps one’s attention as well, providing plenty of tension. There is the trouble of the imprisonment, the excitement and trouble of sneaking out, and the question Jo struggles with daily: What is to become of twelve young women who have no job skills, no money, and know knowledge of the world? How can they escape? There is also the pleasure of watching Jo’s character develop. She is “the General” to the girls and an obedient, useful manager for her father. Juggling those roles plus her own desires is a complex task, and she sometimes rises to the challenge and sometimes fails, changing as time passes.
Valentine’s prose is polished and her descriptions evocative without being overblown, and the book is a pleasure to read. Recommended for lovers of historical fiction, fairy tales, tales of sisterhood, or all three.
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is available now.