This is historical fiction and a fairy tale retelling. Combine the prohibition era with ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’ and you get ‘The Girls at the Kingfisher Club.’ The roaring twenties is a perfect setting for this Grimm fairy tale. The reality of restriction and prohibition in the society of day leading to an overwhelming majority of citizens rebelling by drinking at the speakeasy’s at night. Politicians and policemen frequented the speakeasy’s while their political platforms railed against corruption and the vice of drink. Bootlegging alcohol across state lines was a booming trade, and the speakeasy that got raided was the one that didn’t pay protection or a bribe. Now, add the state of women’s rights. Previous to 1920 American women did not have the right to vote, and married women couldn’t own property. They had no legal claim to money they earned, and were subject to the will of their husband, father, or nearest male relative. What better setting could you place a story about twelve princesses tightly controlled by their father who somehow wear out their shoes every night? This type of traditional father would never allow his daughters to go dancing. In his eyes, only disobedient lascivious women would engage in lewd behavior as dancing and drinking, and only a weak man can’t control his women.
Mr. Hamilton is nouveau riche. He married a woman of status. Being a driven and ambitious man he knew that if he had a son he could enter the upper echelons of society. His wife, however, only had daughters. Mrs. Hamilton was never without child until she died. She conceived and birthed twelve daughters. Her twelve daughters rarely got to see her and were confined to the upstairs rooms. Only Josephine, the eldest was announced. None of the daughters were introduced to society and most never met their father. Only two were ever let outside the house at a time with a nanny. They had a governesses but as more daughters were born their father dismissed her deciding that the girls were Josephine and the eldest girls responsibility to educate and care for. Precious rare occasions took place when Josephine was taken to a movie or the opera as a special treat arranged by their mother. It had to be and hidden from their father. There were a few books and sporadic presents at Christmas time when their father was feeling generous but otherwise the were to stay away from windows, not be seen, and be forgotten. Josephine or Jo was their father’s emissary. She negotiated a $4 allowance once a month to buy clothing, shoes and any large concerns. Jo learned early not to anger their father for fear of abuse and what consequence it would have for her sisters. Several time she sent her sister Ella, the actress, to play the role of a foolish and demure young woman to obtain needs rather than go herself. She was factual tempted to challenge – something that guaranteed refusal from their father.
The escape from their cage is dancing. Over years Jo’s responsibility makes her seem like the nannies, and found she could escape with one of the girls for a few hours. They went to the movies, saw dancing, and fell in love. They practiced and made up steps until they grew the nerve for the oldest to leave, grab a cab, and go to the first club they heard of. They danced all night, but their were rules. You couldn’t go if you were sick, if you were heart-sick, you could tell no one names or where they lived, if you got drunk you would be left, and they went home on Jo’s orders. Over time they became know only as the princesses. They got a reputation for having tin hearts because they didn’t dance for romance. Also, the princesses stuck together, if someone got handsy they had all the princesses to contend with.
Their father decides its time for them to marry and creates heartache and fear. It isn’t that the girls don’t want to marry. The concern is for the kind of man their father will pick for them. No introduction to society is planned. They are still a secret. Instead a few girls at a time will host quiet dinner parties with men their father deems suitable. Considering their fathers controlling and traditional values the sisters don’t have much hope for nice open-minded men. What kind of man would want a woman who had been closeted away and knows nothing of the world.
This is a beautiful retelling. Valentine turned a tale about misbehaving cold-hearted young women on its head. It shows controlled, captive women struggling to find independence during the twenties when women just received the vote. Many women were breaking out of the sole role of being at home as mother and housekeeper. The story shows their need to be cold. Solidarity for the sisters was a necessity of survival. Valentine’s writing is beautiful, but I found I didn’t have the time to read as much as I wanted. When I saw it was available on audible I snapped it up. It’s a fabulous way to enjoy the book. Susie Berneis is the narrator. I had read some critique of minimal character development of the sisters outside of Joe. Listening to Susie Berneis I didn’t notice it as much. There are a few sisters who definitely do not get as much attention, but the narration made it feel natural. This is not a romance but does deal with gender roles and the dynamics in dating and marriage during the era. A few kisses are discussed perfunctorily, but nothing in any kind of detail.
I recommend this to anyone who enjoys the roaring twenties, fairy tale retelling, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, and the study of social dynamics during Prohibition in the twenties. Listen to this rather than reading it if you enjoy audible books.