Reviewed by Katya Rara
THE RESTLESS GIRLS
By Jessie Burton, illustrated by Angela Barrett
160 pages. Bloomsbury Children’s Books.
The Twelve Dancing Princesses never resonated with me growing up. Here’s the gist: Every night, in a faraway kingdom, twelve princesses go to sleep in the same bedroom, locked inside by their father, the king. But the king doesn’t know that, once he’s gone, they escape out a secret door and dance the night away. One morning, the king discovers that the princesses’ shoes have been worn away, and offers one princess—any princess—as a prize to the man who solves the mystery. And eventually, a particularly clever man learns their secret, marries the princess of his choice, and becomes king. (Is the chosen princess even given a name? I don’t remember.)
The original story isn’t the most enlightened, since the Brothers Grimm cobbled it together from folk tales in 1812. But no story is too perfect to be improved, and acclaimed novelist Jessie Burton (The Miniaturist, The Muse) uses the original version’s many shortcomings to weave a new tale that gives these mysterious sisters the attention, the respect, and the ending they deserve.
Once upon a modern time
The Restless Girls begins in the beautiful seaside kingdom of Kalia. This isn’t your usual medieval fantasy world, but a land where telephone wires connect people who live oceans apart. And in this idyllic kingdom, twelve young princesses live their lives, pursuing their passions, from art, languages, and literature to math, astronomy, and medicine.
But when the queen dies in a car crash, her grieving husband becomes “the sort of man who ate a whole cake without offering anyone a slice.” Soon, he begins taking away everything that brings his daughters joy. Their books, typewriters, keys to the world outside—one by one, they’re pried out of the girls’ hands, before the king locks them in a windowless room nightly to “keep them safe.”
This would discourage anyone else from living their life. But these princesses aren’t ordinary girls—and just as they lose hope, the story really begins.
Twelve fearless girls
Burton populates The Restless Girls with a variety of characters: irrational fathers, bumbling advisors, charming, captivating animals, and smug, pompous men. But at the heart of the story are the princesses, who share a fierce love for one another, while having unique passions, personalities, and even temperaments. Each girl has her own voice, and confronts their circumstances in her own small way.
Leading the princesses on their wild adventures is Frida, the eldest and cleverest of the girls. But each of the sisters, down to innocent, young Agnes, gets the chance to shine, even in situations unrelated to their interests—because though your passions help define you, they’re not all you are.
Modern sensibilities in a classic fairytale
From the moment I cracked open The Restless Girls, I fell in love with Angela Barrett’s expressive illustrations, which portray the princesses as beautiful black girls, and the kingdom of Kalia as lush and verdant. I also loved Burton’s strikingly gorgeous language, which often took a turn for the cheeky—as if she were punctuating sentences with a wink and a nudge, just for me.
Beyond Burton’s mastery of the written word, I enjoyed the wisdom peppered throughout the book, all things I don’t remember from the fairytales I grew up with: that authority figures are far from perfect, that parents can get lost, too, and—ugh, I don’t want to take the experience away from you! You need to read this yourself. It’s a wonderful ride.
The story I needed growing up
I love fairytales, and I have a soft spot for stories that add nuance, depth, and emotion to them. Now, retelling fairytales in a way that children will love, while giving their parents or older siblings a little giggle, is a whole other challenge—one that Burton passed with flying colors, by telling a story rich in wisdom, wit, humor, and heart.
While I found the plot simple, even predictable, The Restless Girls wasn’t made for me, but for a new generation—and it gives me hope that today’s children won’t grow up with stories that turn women into prizes for others to win. Instead, they’ll be shaped by fairytales that tell them that their hearts and minds are their own, that adults aren’t always right, and that they can conquer anything they put their mind to… with kindness, cleverness, courage, and a pinch of magic.
The Restless Girls by Jessie Burton will be available soon at Fully Booked. To reserve a copy in advance, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Katya has had a torrid romance with fiction for over two decades, and sneaks out in the middle of the day for clandestine rendezvous in cafés. She works in advertising and has four poodles. You can find her on Instagram @katerinarara.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]