Speak Easy, by Catherynne M. Valente
Posted July 26, 2015on:
publishes August 31, 2015
Where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (thanks Subterranean!)
Speak Easy is a jazz age retelling of the fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses (a tale you’re familiar with if you’ve read Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls at The Kingfisher Club). Told in a series of vignettes that follow the residents of the hotel Artemesia, we watch as they each see something they want, and are lured to go after it. The final twist, however, involves a magic far older than the Brothers Grimm originally imagined.
The words that best describes this novella are sculptural and musical. The short chapters are titled with the room numbers in which the characters reside. It’s as if, with each vignette, with each character introduction and peek into their lives, Valente is carving the story, word by word and room by room out of a massive, hotel shaped slab of marble. It’s like those ancient temples that have been carved out of stone or into cliff faces. Someone had to carve out all those rooms. Just like Valente is carving out the rooms of the hotel residents. One of the first rooms we visit is the infamous 1550, home of Zelda Fair, Olive Bay, Opal Lunet and Oleander Coy. Four women who live by their own set of rules, share their apartment with a pelican, and keep their own secrets. Although Speak Easy is an ensemble piece, Zelda quickly becomes the celestial body that other characters orbit.
I also mentioned the word musical,didn’t I? It’s the voice of the narrator. Confident, cheeky, and bordering on scat singing, the narrator is having a conversation with the reader, luring you in, teasing you with slang, entendres, and bawdy jokes. The narrator can tell you who in this hotel is sleeping with someone they aren’t married to, wouldn’t you like know what other juicy secrets she might be enticed to share?
it’s a self-sustaining, carved-to-survive world Valente has created. Thanks to rooftop gardens and a small farm, and in-house bakeries and restaurants, no one ever seems to leave the Hotel Artemesia. And why would you? There’s everything you could ever want – champagne till dawn, parties that never stop, beautiful people, a dream that never ends (but are they trapped?). But there’s an ever bigger party happening way downstairs. A party where you dance till you drop, and come on baby, every body’s doing it. Wouldn’t want to be left out, would you? Twelve characters get lured down there. Perhaps to hide from who they didn’t want to become or maybe even out of simple boredom.
Loosely following the original fairy tale, ambitious bell-hop Frankie Key is tasked with finding the hotel owner’s missing wife, who has gone down the same rabbit hole as Zelda, Olive, Opal, Nickel and Dime, and six other hotel residents. Frankie is able to infiltrate the party, but is it the magic cap he’s been given that makes him invisible to the wealthy patrons, or his bell-hop uniform that marks him not worth noticing? This is a magic that’s bigger than Frankie, bigger than Zelda, bigger and older than the Artemesia herself. Is there any escape from a magic this old and powerful?
Speak Easy is a riotous, raucous, brassy-loud, tap-shoe tapping song of a story. Ever hear a song in a musical where the singers are all singing something different, nearly singing over each other, but it’s all on purpose and then you realize they are all signing in the complementary keys, and then it all comes together into brilliantly harmonized final note? This novella is a little like that. I felt pulled in too many directions while reading (I don’t do so good with vignette stories that have lots of characters. personal failing of mine), yet it didn’t matter which direction I chose, they all led to the same place. The party that never ends, the one that sucks you in, the one you need to be saved from.
I hate to say it, but this isn’t my favorite Valente. I prefer it when she draws characterization out longer, gives me more to chew on. There was so much happening, so many characters, so much backstory laid out, I never felt like I had a chance to catch my breath and take it all in. The pacing was a little too fast for me for all that was going on. That said, if you’re looking for a fun introduction to Valente’s work, this is readably fun place to start. If you like unique and unexpected narrative voices, Speak Easy will also scratch that itch.
I blame Valente’s The Habitation of the Blessed for why I wasn’t over the moon for Speak Easy. Because Habitation? Possibly the most beautiful novel ever written.