This is the story of twelve sisters who escape from their home to go dancing until dawn.
They have to escape, because they’re not allowed out, because their mother is dead and their father’s kindness is more terrifying than anything else.
They can escape because Jo organizes it. She is the General; she never dances; she is her father’s daughter.
This is a story about hard choices, about love, about saving yourself, and about saving each other.
I didn’t think at a certain point that this story could end with any kind of happiness. And it’s true that I’m crying now, because there are parts of it that hurt. But there’s hope, too, and unlikely victories. Halfway through the book, I knew I couldn’t stop reading until the end.
One of the things I love is how clearly this is a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, without being tied to its source. The Twelve Dancing Princesses is one of my favorite fairy tales partly because it is so clearly about sisters; that the relationship between the twelve girls is more important than any of the others. And, in all its prickly, fraught, wonderful glory, that’s exactly what we see here. It’s the center that the book is written around. I recognized sisterhood, which both is and is not friendship.
And I loved Jo. She is also prickly and hard and sometimes even cruel. But she’s completely real and compelling and also heartbreaking. Her loneliness at certain points was almost palpable. I ached for her to have a happy ending, more than any of the other girls, and I didn’t know how she possibly could.
And the voice is pitch-perfect, both the bits of 20s slang and the calm-on-the-surface narration that goes down smoothly and then burns. (“It frightened her how deep her sobs could reach, as if someone was pulling sorrow from her bones.”) There’s just enough distance to keep us worried, to keep us wondering.
There’s a depth and richness to this book that makes me want to talk about it for ages. The settings–the house, the different nightclubs, the way the girls interact with each space. The tension between the freedom the girls find dancing and the careful negotiation of the men they dance with. The blatant corruption of the city and how Jo has to find her way in it. The fact that no one turns into a caricature, even the unkind characters, and so there’s no easy way out.
And I loved that the story isn’t bitter. It’s not a manifesto. It’s too clear-sighted for that, too aware of complexities. Instead it has layers upon layers (the way the girls’ father deals with them (that moment when he realizes he has to face all twelve (that moment when he’s caught in his own trap) and how Jo and Tom maneuver him into that) how all his plans backfire on him because people are stronger and smarter and braver than you expect them to be), and each one adds another shade to the picture.
All of my recent favorite stories, the ones I keep thinking about and thinking about, have these common themes: bravery and resistance. Rose Under Fire (that moments when the lights go out), The Goblin Emperor (Maia choosing kindness again and again), heck, Captain America (when the tech says no, knowing he might get killed). It’s here too: the courage to escape, the choice to go out into the dark night and dance and dance and dance.
Book source: public library
Book information: 2014, Atria Books; pubb’d adult but great YA crossover material