The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine
With last Friday’s release of Maleficent, an adaptation of an adaptation of an adaptation of Giambattista Basile’s “Sole, Luna e Talia”, it might be tempting to think that we’ve hit a saturation point for fairy tale retellings. Tempting, but incorrect. I can’t speak for everybody else, of course, but I adore fairy tale retellings. It’s an extension of my love for the art of adaptation. When you’re retelling a fairy tale, the basic structure is there for you to follow or subvert, forcing you to dig in a little deeper. Adaptation, after all, is its own criticism—you have to decide what to discard, what to use, and what, to you, is the heart of the story.
In The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, Genevieve Valentine dispenses with the war hero protagonist of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” and any fantastical elements to focus on the family drama implied in the story: twelve daughters locked up at the behest of their father. Transplanting it to our world only makes sense, with the Jazz Age a setting as suitably dazzling as Basile’s vague fantasy land.
With twelve leading ladies to attend to, Valentine strikes a perfect balance of characterization here, balancing the other eleven sisters with the story of Jo, the eldest daughter. Known as the General to her sisters, Jo occupies a strange position as both the jailor and liberator of her sisters. She’s the one who decides if they get to escape their lonely, tedious lives that night; but she’s also the one who came up with the scheme in the first place. The novel follows both the sisters from captivity to freedom on their own terms and Jo’s development from the formidable General to something else—an actual sister.
The genius of Jo’s characterization is the sheer logic behind her: of course, the eldest sister would become the surrogate parent. Throughout the novel, as Jo attempts to manipulate their father into better situations for her sisters, she’s aware of how much she’s had to become like their much-hated father, a man who didn’t even notify his daughters that their mother was dead. The girls may be sheltered, but they’re not stupid. It’s only their love for Jo that keeps them from bolting outright, and even that gets strained the older they get.
These stories—the stories of characters becoming full human beings—are my favorite, but Jo might be the oldest character to undergo this journey in anything I’ve read. Not that Jo is particularly ancient, but rather that Jo is recovering from a life where she’s had to be more symbol than anything else. I’m suddenly reminded of Pacific Rim’s Stacker Pentecost, who refuses to tell his life story because he only needs to be a fixed point in the lives of others. As the General, Jo is happy to let her sisters hate her and sacrifice her own desires so that her sisters can be safe. Before Jo can finally come into her own, she has to learn how to not only exist on her own but how to let others make their own decisions. It’s a difficult thing to do, really, when someone else’s wrong decisions are the difference between a life lived in snatches of moonlight and a life of your own.
The rest of the sisters are, necessarily, more briefly sketched, but Valentine has a wonderful feeling for them—particularly Rose and Lily, the twins that privately don’t feel like they’re twins. Each sister has their own story and their own happy ending, even if it’s glimpsed more obliquely. (Marvelously, one of them is queer—and her closest sister draws all the suspicion off of her.) And Valentine also has got a wonderful feeling for Jazz Age New York and how the girls maneuver in it, from their soulless house to the various clubs they frequent to the state of affairs for young women trying to support themselves. The writing style is downright Fitzgeraldian, although the chapter titles quoting contemporary songs does get a little twee after a while.
But the story is, after a fashion, entirely her own. It’s rare that a retelling makes me race through the pages, borderline terrified for the characters I’ve come to love, but the pacing and tension are managed perfectly. I’m reminded a little of Cathrynne M. Valente, except that Valentine actually sticks the landing, ending not traditionally, but perfectly.
Bottom line: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a soul-searching delight. Highly recommended.
This book was made available to me for publicity purposes.