Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Review: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

Cover art for The Girls At the Kingfisher Club, featuring a pale-skinned woman with bobbed blonde hair. She wears a fur-trimmed dress and a long string of pearls. The image crops away her eyes so she's only visible from the nose to about her waist.
Don’t you just love it when you read five 5-star books in a row? And don’t you love it even more when it happens at the very beginning of the year?

I mean, this is the first time it’s actually happened to me, seeing as how I’m picky as all hell, but I could get used to it real easy.

The first four 5-star reads were, of course, volumes one through four of SAGA, which we talked about last week. This week I shall do my best to say cogent (yet enthusiastic) things about THE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB, Genevieve Valentine’s non-magical retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.”

Valentine transports the story to 1920s New York, where Jo Hamilton does everything in her power to help her eleven younger sisters lead a halfway decent life. It’s far from easy, given how their social climber of a father confines his daughters to the upper floors of his town house lest anyone see how terribly he failed in his quest for an heir. The girls aren't allowed visitors. They can't go out. They can't even purchase anything beyond the bare necessities, all ordered via catalogue and so guaranteed to disappoint upon arrival.

In a moment of desperation, Jo breaks her father's rules and takes the eldest among them out for a secret night of dancing in the city’s speakeasies--a practice that soon becomes both ritual and rite of passage as more of the sisters grow old enough for such outings. The nighttime excursions let the sheltered girls dance, drink, and meet people from outside their father’s suffocating home, keeping the despair from overwhelming them.

But when Mr Hamilton decides it’s past time he offloaded his enormous brood onto the right sorts of husbands (read: people just like him), Jo must find a new way to keep her sisters safe.

OH MY GOD.

No; seriously; OH MY GOD.

Some books, you know straight off the bat they’re something special. Cautious, picky-as-hell reader that I am, I was desperately in love with THE GIRLS FROM THE KINGFISHER CLUB by page twenty. It’s the sort of story that reaches out to you with an invitation not only to explore the beauty of the night clubs and the thrill of each dance but also to bear witness to the suffocating pain of a life lived largely behind closed doors.

It's an irresistible combination: gorgeous and dark, flashy and empathetic, and entirely up my alley.

Valentine leaves no distance between the reader and Jo, whose POV forms the bulk of the narrative. We immediately recognize her as someone with a deep sense of responsibility and an even deeper well of emotion. Jo cares about her sisters. She cares about making the world an open, welcoming place for them, despite what their father and his ilk have tried to form it into. And in fighting so hard for her loved ones' comforts, their pleasures, she’s largely subsumed her own desires; her own love for the things that nourish her soul and keep her going.

The Jo the reader meets and immediately engages with stands in sharp contrast to the Jo her sisters recognize. Jo inside her own head is strong and loving, with a desperate longing for more; Jo to the outside observer is harsh, sometimes to the point of totalitarianism, and incapable of feeling so much as a shred of sympathy for anyone who stands in her way.

It’s a persona she’s crafted because she feels she is the only one who can keep her sisters safe--from their father, from the men they meet out on the town, from the social restrictions that exist to crush them. To this end, she makes herself the bad guy; the one who dictates when and how they can go out, and when they have to return home. She’s well aware that she sometimes slips into behaviours her father has wielded against her, but she doesn’t know how else to conduct herself with her sisters. She can’t see another way to negotiate her relationship with them.

This setup works beautifully because it makes the reader want so many things on Jo’s behalf. I wanted her to be able to feel things openly. I wanted her sisters to realize that she did care about them and behaved as she did to keep them safe, not to restrict them. I wanted her to have someone she could love, even if it was only for a little while. I wanted her to realize she could rise outside of what her circumstances had made her and discover which parts of her were her and which were situational.

Jo reached into my very soul and squeezed it.

No word of a lie: I spent perhaps 2/3 of the book crying. Much of that was because the sisters’ lives are genuinely upsetting, but the bulk of it was simply because the book was so damned beautiful. Valentine can turn a phrase like nobody’s business. She has that knack for telling so much with a simple, perfectly crafted observation; a choice look inside a character’s mind. She leaves no emotion unexplored, and she forces the reader to feel for her characters.

I can’t imagine a world where I wouldn’t have been deeply moved by Jo. Valentine doesn’t allow for it.

THE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB is also very much a portrait of women who help each other. Jo continually watches out for sisters, aware that many of the dance halls’ other denizens are inclined to take advantage of women alone, and she encourages her sisters to do the same for each other. None of them go in without backup. None of them need fear they’ll be forced to endure wandering hands or verbal abuse simply because they have no recourse. They don’t hesitate for a second when one of them is threatened. They present a united front, willing and able to stand against whatever comes.

Their determination to watch out for one another stretches into other spheres, too. It hit me hardest with Rose and Lily, the second set of twins. Rose is gay. Lily recognizes this and does as much as she can to protect her sister. And in doing so, Lily comes to know herself better; to realize that she doesn’t have to be the sort of girl society expects.

On another note, the text never excuses or validates Mr. Hamilton in the slightest. We aren’t asked to sympathize with him, or to understand why he behaves as he does. He’s simply a monster who forces his wife to bear child after child in pursuit of a son, then relegates his daughters to a barren life on the top few floors of his townhouse followed by arranged marriages to men who share his repugnant view of women. There is no justification. There is no explanation. He is simply an all-too-human evil.

He chilled me to the bone.

Hell, y'all. I haven’t said nearly enough about this gorgeous book. I always get like this with my five-stare reads. I love them so much that I get downright incoherent. I lose the capacity to link things together.

I'm just gonna end here, then, by telling you I cannot think of a single level on which THE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB does not succeed. It’s beautifully written, it’s rich in character and setting, and it says something important about the self, the need to support those around us, and the prices we sometimes pay for other peoples’ folly.

When I wrote about my top books of 2014, I said I'd be delighted if I found anything I loved as much as Karin Lowachee's WARCHILD throughout all of 2015. THE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB doesn't quite make it there, but it's only a couple of hairs behind.

It was a hell of a way to kick off 2015. I wish it were more than tangentially SFF so I could nominate it for the Hugo.

Links

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12 comments:

  1. I really want this. I wish I had got it for Christmas!

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    1. You should get it for yourself as a late Christmas present!

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  2. Did you read Mechanique? It was a book by Genevieve Valentine that I read a while ago and was surprised at the ratio of my liking for it to other people talking about it. So I'm psyched Girls at the Kingfisher Club is getting plenty of attention. Yayyyy Genevieve Valentine! (Also, you should read Mechanique, it's creepy.)

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    1. MECHANIQUE is on my library list! I've also got my name down for PERSONA, though of course that one's not out yet.

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  3. Note to self: read this when I already need a good cry!

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    1. It's the perfect pick for those times when you just want to cry over something.

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  4. Sounds like the perfect thing while I wait for Book 2 of the Diviners :P

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    1. It's a great fit for anyone who loved that book!

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  5. I read this last year and really enjoyed it as well!

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    1. I have a feeling it'll be the book I push on people this year.

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  6. I love the fairy tale & love the 20s, so I definitely need to read this! Especially since you were so right about Thorn. :D

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    1. I'll be shocked if you don't love this one! It seems like totally your thing.

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