This is the most magical non-magical book I’ve read in a long time. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a loose retelling of the fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”. The Girls is set during the Roaring Twenties, and although there is not a single supernatural element to the story, the flitting setting and the fairy tale imagery create a beautiful magical atmosphere.
The Brother Grimm version of the story goes something like this:
Once upon a time there was a king with twelve daughters. He kept them locked up at night, but every morning their dancing shoes were worn out as though they had been dancing all night. The king announces that any man who can solve the mystery can marry one of the princesses, but the princesses, who are cold and heartless, drug the princes so that they sleep all through the night. At last a soldier successfully follows them for three nights and collects a souvenir from each night. When he presents his evidence to the king, the princesses confess and the prince marries the eldest princess.
In The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, the princesses are the daughters of a wealthy businessman in Manhattan during the 1920s. Their father wishes to conceal the fact that he has only daughters, so he keeps them on the top floor of the house and forbids them to leave it. Jo, the oldest daughter, becomes the de facto parent to her eleven siblings. When the siblings threaten to run away, Jo begins sneaking them out of the house every night so that they can dance all night in the speakeasies of the city.
Then language of this novel is simple, yet poetic. Here’s a quote:
By 1927 there were twelve girls who danced all night and never gave names, but by then the men had given up asking and called them all Princess. “Hey, Princess, dust off your shoes? It’s the Charleston!” The men would have called them anything they wanted to be called, Dollface or Queenie or Beloved, just to get one girl on the dance floor for a song. But in that flurry of short dresses and spangles and ribbon-tied shoes, Princess was the name that suited; it seemed magical enough, like maybe it was true. Wild things, these girls; wild for dancing. They could go all night without sitting, grabbing at champagne between songs, running to the throng at the table and saying something that made them all laugh, light and low together like the parts of a chorus. It wasn’t right, all those women sticking together so close. Something about the wall of bob -haired girls scared the men , though they hardly knew it. They just knew they’d better dance their best with a Princess, and no mistake. No need to worry, though, as long as a man could dance. The nights were long and drink was cheap, and sometimes the Princesses’ smiles were red-lipped and happy and not sharp white flashing teeth, and there were so many that if one of them turned down a dance, it was easy to wait and try again with another one.
I loved the language in this book, and the images of the barren attic, the opulent downstairs which the girls so seldom see, and the speakeasies, some of which are dark and grimy and some of which sparkle like the spangles on the girls’ dresses.
What I loved most was the character of Jo, and the relationships between the sisters, who fight “like wolves” but stick together in times of crisis (or when a man attempts to “get fresh”). In this story, it’s up to the women to save themselves from captivity. Men may be enemies or allies, but they are never the focal point of the story. The father, who is unbearably horrible, has no idea that he’s horrible – he thinks he’s provided a good home for the girls, with ample pampering and protection. A dreaded suitor who comes calling is actually quite delightful (others are as dreadful as expected). The men are layered, complicated characters, but they are always off to the side, while Jo struggles with how to keep her sisters safe from her father without actually becoming her father.
The heart of the book is Jo, who fiercely loves her sisters and whose efforts to make a life for them usually go unappreciated. In her attempts to protect them from their father’s wrath, she is strict and unyielding:
Never tell a man your name. Never mention where you live, or any place we go. Never let a man take you anywhere; if you take one into the alley to neck, tell one of your sisters, and come back as soon as you can. Never fall for a man so hard you can’t pull your heart back in time. We’ll leave without you if we have to.
Jo’s journey from a helpless child, to the iron leader her sisters refer to as “The General”, and ultimately to a sister instead of a dictator, is the heart of the book. I wept for Jo and I rejoiced in her victories. What a gorgeous book.