Title: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
Last year I read and really enjoyed Wicked by Maguire, so I was excited when I found a used copy of Confessions for cheap. And of course then it sat on my shelf for about a year. Hate when that happens! Carl’s Once Upon a Time Challenge was the perfect chance for me to read this one. And I’m glad I did–but I didn’t love it as much as Wicked.
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is a retelling of the Cinderella tale, but while many parts of the book were familiar, this definitely isn’t the Disney version. Set in the seventeenth century, Margarethe flees England with her two small daughters, Ruth and Iris, to start a new life in Holland. Their circumstances are mysterious, but is evident that a tragedy involving Ruth and Iris’s father has occurred–a tragedy that is quickly swept under the rug. Desperate to make sure her daughters are fed and sheltered, Margarethe does everything she can to claw her way into situations that will help them all rise above the dirt and squalor of reality. Along the way, they become involved in the Van der Meer household where they meet Clara–a small and curious child, a changeling of sorts.
Once Margarethe and her daughters intertwine themselves in the life of the Van der Meers, the story becomes more familiar–Margarethe eventually becomes the evil stepmother we all know and Ruth and Iris become the stepsisters. But they aren’t evil like we have learned in the original fairytale. This story is twisted into a perspective that recreates the story of Cinderella.
“In the lives of children, pumpkins can turn into coaches, mice and rats into human beings. When we grow up, we learn that it’s far more common for human beings to turn into rats” (x).
I enjoyed many elements of the story–of course seeing the wellknown fairytale in a different light. I’ve come to really enjoy different tellings and one of my favorite aspects of literature is perspective. There is always more than one side of the story, but we usually see the side of the successor. In this case the reader sees what might have really occured–what Clara or Cinderella was truly like, the interaction between the stepsisters and Clara, and of course the stepsisters’ part in the tale.
I also really liked the characterization and side stories in this book. Iris seems to be the main character, and she is a strong and willful young woman. Her sister Ruth is mute and often plays second fiddle (or even third after Clara), but she is still an important member of the cast. Margarethe is wretched–everything you would expect an evil stepmother to be. Surrounding the story is the tulip craze and a painter, Luykas Schoonmaker, who tries to capture beauty but often paints the horrific truth instead. And then Caspar who in many respects is the fairy godmother of the story. True beauty is a major theme within the novel, and all of these characters in some way represent some type of beauty–whether pure beauty or tainted and false.
There is a richness to Maguire’s storytelling that I really love, but the execution of the storytelling is sometimes jarring or disconnected. There were many storylines that were dragged on for too long in the book and some that I didn’t think were fully satisfied, such as the story of what happened in England before they left for Holland. I suppose this is to be left a mystery, but it felt a little too unsettled to me.
This review is much longer than I intended–when beginning I half thought I didn’t really have much to say about the book. It was an enjoyable read, but I didn’t find it terribly memorable. If you’re looking to read Maguire, certainly go with Wicked which seemed much more complex to me. I’m interested in reading more of his Oz series but don’t know if I’ll try any of his other retellings just yet. What is your favorite fairytale retelling? Have you read any Maguire?
This concludes my reading for the Once Upon a Time Challenge III. I had hoped to read The Book of Lost Things and Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell, but there just isn’t enough time. What I did finish:
Date Finished: June 13, 2009 #29