Fairy tale retellings are somewhere between tempting and anathema to me, and for the same reason--fairy tales rarely make normal human sense. People do seemingly nonsensical, random things, answers fall out of the sky, and I never understand--can't even imagine--what the characters are thinking or feeling. So I'm simultaneously skeptical and eager when someone claims or attempts to wrap an emotionally accessible narrative around one of these structures.
For some reason, the Twelve Dancing Princesses is one of my favorites. It's probably just because my sister and I used to act it out for our little brother, repeating all our actions until each move--sleeping, dancing, sneaking--had been done twelve times. But there's also something particularly impenetrable about this one that I think makes it very hard to tell. I read Heather Dixon's Entwined ages ago, and in spite of its flaws I really enjoyed it.
And so my path was crossed by Genevieve Valentine's The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, and I had to jump on it. Twelve Dancing Princesses in '20s NYC? Entwined meets The Rules of Civility? Sign me up! Twelve sisters sequestered at home by their father (who had been waiting impatiently for a male heir), and their only joy or freedom is sneaking out to go dancing. They live trapped in an oppressive house, and dancing is their only freedom.
Okay, first I want to say that this was just such a good read. Now that I'm at the end, especially, it's absolutely thrilling and heartbreaking and satisfying. And if the rest of this post ends up talking about all the things that are hard about retelling the Twelve Dancing Princesses story, please believe that it reads that way because this book made me think and feel--about everything from the structure of the story to the lives of women in the '20s.
I think the weakest point of the book can be stated up front--the domineering, oppressive father is not set up as thoroughly as he needed to be. The sense of being trapped is caught perfectly, and oppression comes through on every page. But for the first half of the book, I could not have told you what was at stake, what was the risk. An intimidating man, sure, but what do these trapped girls have to lose? What's so bad about his anger?
I can explain this--there is a big moment in the second half of the book where we become aware of what his anger really means--but I think the first half needed that impact. We need to understand why these girls are trapped, especially as they grow older, more impatient, and more competent. One thing the book does very well is explore the prisoner mindset--Jo, who takes care of her sisters, but at the expense of being seen as a collaborator, even by herself; Lou, whose longing to be free is stronger than the others, and more dangerous; Lily and Rose, who barely know themselves or each other--but I think it would have helped to be a bit more explicit about how many of the limitations on their options were truly external, and how many had grown only around a lifetime of being trapped.
Really, this is a story about women's secret rebellion; the story only works because the princesses are locked up. If they were dancing publicly, legitimately, it wouldn't be an issue. Constructing that prison is one of the big tasks of telling this story. The Kingfisher girls' prison was well constructed, but I wasn't able to see it clearly for too long.
The other really hard part about telling this story, I think, is that twelve is really just too many sisters. When you have twelve characters, they're a crowd, a gang. Each one may have a name and a personality, but the fact is that a couple of them have adventures, and the rest of them are along for the ride. This is Jo's story, which I think was a major strength. Jo is their General, and they are obedient, but is she using her power toward the right goals? Is she doing more harm than good? And what has it cost her--oh, the answer to that one is long. Really, the summary can be boiled down to that: what does it cost Jo to protect her sisters?
I'm quite impressed at how well they are all portrayed. Right now, I can name all twelve sisters and describe their personalities--not just traits, but characteristics. Araminta is haughty, because it protects her from her fear. Rebecca is practical, and smart. Hattie and Mattie have each other, and that makes them both fearless and careless of people, but Hattie might be a little less fearless than her twin. There's a wonderful point near the end where the narrative splits and follows different sisters, and this brings so much together--they cease to be a gang and become the owners of their own stories. It's lovely to watch.
I think what I'm saying, as I write all this out, is that the second half of the book is much stronger than the first. Really, I enjoyed the whole thing, but what it comes down to is that the second half hangs together, delivers a combination of writing and characterization and story and setting, that makes me absolutely swoon. For the first half, I was reading a good book; by the end I was reading one I loved.