I first encountered Genevieve Valentine's work in the "pages" of this very magazine. I was a copy editor at the time, and her short story "Bespoke" offered a unique challenge. While I enjoyed many of the stories I read during my tenure as copy editor, "Bespoke" was particularly vivid—lushly styled, uniquely plotted. This story of time-traveling Vagabonders and the seamstresses who served them sucked me in, to the point where it was difficult to be attuned to any matters of spelling, grammar, or house style.
I've followed Valentine's career since that day in 2009, through TV recaps, movie reviews, wardrobe nitpickings, dozens of short stories, fandom activism, and her first novel. Now I find myself in a position to review her second, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, and I feel a bit like I've fallen back through time. Once again, I find myself so enveloped by the lyrical and lovely work she's created that it’s difficult to focus on the task at hand; this time, crafting a review that will communicate my affection for this book to outsiders.
Given the novel's setting, one might think The Girls at the Kingfisher Club merely a historical novel, with no particular appeal to speculative fiction readers. It's set in New York City during the roaring twenties. The eponymous "girls" are the dozen daughters of a stern and money-obsessed business man who has locked them in the attic of his palatial home for the mere crime of being female. Though he occasionally allows them token items—shoes and dresses from catalogs, mostly—they have otherwise grown up in strict isolation. After the girls overhear a party at the neighbor's house, the oldest among them, Jo, decides to venture out, leading her sisters into a world of prohibition-era dancing. But the responsibility of leading the girls, not to mention protecting them from their father's wrath, has an indelible impact on Jo over the novel's three-decade span. She forgoes love, marriage, and escape in order to watch over her sisters; the girls return the favor by dubbing her "the General."
On the one hand, when summarized plainly, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club does not seem much like a fantasy novel at all. There is no magic. There are no wizards. It is set in our own world, or at least the world of our past. But the world Valentine builds is intricate, and delicate; the characters are distinctive, and yet somehow archetypal.
Of course, this might be best understood given the novel's background as a historical update of the Grimm tale "The Twelve Dancing Princesses." Like any good fairy tale, we have an old king, a fading palace (complete with helpful servants who aid the girls on their quest for a good night of dancing), and a kingdom—in this case, a strangely depopulated New York City—both large and lonely. There's even a ghostly absent mother-figure; whether dead, or simply missing, it's never entirely clear, even when the girls assume the worst.
In some ways, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club builds like a short story, and the fairy-tale nature of the novel’s world only contributes to that impression. "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," it begins, and then proceeds through a series of almost dream-like vignettes. Initially, I worried that the characters would remain thin, ghostlike—more "princesses" than real, vital girls and women. But I shouldn't have fretted: Valentine was merely drawing us in, first through her gorgeous prose, and then deeper into this emotionally poignant book.
As in the story "Bespoke," whose universe grew in richness and mystery after a single line ("Everything went, sooner or later; the small animals tended to last longer than the large ones, but eventually all that was left were some particularly hardy plants, and the butterflies"), the characters of this tale grow quite a bit more real after a single passage in the novel’s sixth chapter:
[Jo] was nineteen, too old and too young for her age, and still getting used to going out at night.
He was a deliveryman, sneaking barrels into the Kingfisher's basement; then he was staying to dance with her, and staying, and staying.
His name was Tom, and he was just shy of handsome, and when he smiled she felt like an only child (p. 54)
Suddenly, abruptly, Jo becomes real, no longer a symbol of girlhood rebellion, or even the "General" that her sisters dub her, but an identifiable young woman, with needs and wants beyond the stifling world of her father’s attic. The tension between her competing desires—for love, and for her family to be protected—forms the compelling backbone of this book, making it much more than your typical fairy tale.
It's also an interesting twist, in this historical novel, to make Jo a prisoner both of her circumstances and her own values rather than merely a victim of the era's sexist attitudes. Of course, the interlude during which The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is set is a unique one in terms of changing sexual mores, which Valentine handles with aplomb. Perfectly realistic is Mr. Hamilton's desire for a male heir, and his concurrent impulse to marry his daughters off, but of course, by the late 1920s, this attitude would have appeared horrific to the daughters in question—particularly those who end the novel dressed as men and who spend their nights dancing with other women.
And yet Jo's situation is of her own making—a defense mechanism, forged in isolation and abuse, which (like all such mechanisms) quickly outgrows its usefulness once she's removed from the prison of her father's household. She is, by then, constrained not by his sexist and outmoded attitudes but instead by her own worries: that all her sisters are safe and cared for, above and beyond her own needs, no matter how fundamental.
It's a difficult, and more interesting path to take; as readers, we celebrate Jo's sisterly care even as we find ourselves screaming at her to put on her own oxygen mask. But she always remains true to herself and her earlier programming, forged in fire, as it were. She continues to fret over the fate of her sisters, even as her own youth withers away:
As long as they were elsewhere in the world, then Jo could imagine that all ten of them had made it out all right and were enjoying their freedom in daylight hours, at long last.
She hoped it was true. She liked to imagine them as a flock that made their way through the city and came to roost at sundown, together and happy. (p. 215)
Between Jo herself and her second-in-command Lou, a hard-as-nails flirt who is, perhaps, Jo's true (though not romantic) love, readers are treated to a book about women that easily passes the Bechdel test. If the other sisters seem at times sketchily drawn, then it's an understandable necessity. There are twelve of them, after all, and we spend most of the narrative deeply entwined in Jo's point of view. Jo is used to treating those younger sisters, especially, like a single being that just happens to have many bodies. It's with wry humor and more than a little fondness that Jo notes of two of her sisters that, "[they] had become twins, Jo thought, though it seemed a strange thing to realize only now, when they couldn't have been more differently dressed, and when the truth was so obvious. They'd always been twins. Jo was getting imaginative in her old age, that was all" (p. 251).
Ultimately, The Girls as the Kingfisher Club is many things: fairy tale; historical novel; speculative tale (though without a single drop of magic, unless you count the magic of a strong, determined oldest sister). But above all, this is love story—not between the sisters and the men with whom they dance, but between the sisters themselves. It’s also quite lovely. But then, Valentine's work always is.
Phoebe North writes SF for teenagers. Her first book, Starglass, came out in July from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. Visit her blog at www.phoebenorth.com.