Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire
Length: 416 pages
Recommended reader age: YA to adult
Publisher: Headline review, October 2008
About the author:
Gregory Maguire is an American author from New York who writes fantasy and children’s novels.
He also founded and co-directed a non profit in New England, aimed at raising awareness of the significance of literature in the lives of young children.
Best known for his novel “Wicked” you can find more information about his books here.
Iris Fisher: Plain looking yet intelligent girl who looks for magical creatures everywhere.
Ruth Fisher: Iris’s older sister who despite being mentally disabled always tries her hardest.
Margarethe Fisher/ten Broek: Mother to Iris and Ruth, tough, capable and hardworking.
Clara van den Meer: beautiful child who is both not allowed and unwilling to leave her house.
Henrike van den Meer: Mother to Clara and strict ruler of van den Meer household.
Cornelius van den Meer: Clara’s father and tulip importer.
Schoonmaker: master painter and major pessimist.
Caspar: Apprentice to Schoonmaker and kindhearted friend to Iris, Ruth and Clara.
Plot summary, spoiler free I promise:
The novel starts with the Fisher/ten Broek family arriving in Holland with no money and the only plan being to find Margarethe’s family in the hope that they can help them. We see the kindness and imagination that Iris is capable of right from the beginning, and the depth of her care for Ruth. We also see first hand the tough and almost uncaring attitude of Margarethe, at odds with her desperation to find work and care for her daughters.
Their search for a safe place, food and shelter takes them to Schoonmaker, and through art, perseverance, and not a small amount of luck, we travel with the family to meet the van den Meers.
Here we learn more about Clara, her reluctance to leave the house, and follow all of the characters through plague, bankruptcy, and inevitably, the ball that marks the beginning of a change in fortune for Cinderella.
We see the behaviour that results from keeping a child inside with no rules and limited expectations, as well as learn more about Clara’s parents and why they act how they do. Throughout there are stories of changelings, of gypsy Queens and evil Imps, and it is only at the end of the novel that we discover the truth behind it all.
I honestly spent the first half of this novel completely lost as to how it related to Cinderella beyond the obvious stepmother with 2 daughters part. I frequently felt that the story had taken the author on a journey and not the other way round, and I felt the last few chapters were a scramble to bring the novel back to the fairy tale that I was expecting as a reader. But I actually read this twice before starting a review because I did greatly enjoy both the story and the writing style. Once I stopped trying to make the book I was reading fit my preconceived ideas of what I felt should happen, I found it an enjoyable and fun read.
It is a novel that simultaneously showcases life in 17th century Holland and the realities of life in different social classes, from desperately poor to the very rich and all the shades in between. And the author manages to capture both the emotions and societies expectations at each stage too, as well as well described household tasks and the typical food eaten in this era. The setting truly felt solid and well researched.
From the start the author also weaves magic and the possibility of fairy tale creatures into a story that is full of strong imagery, and characters that grow more real and solid throughout the novel. The idea of changelings as a running theme throughout helped to bind all the sections of the novel together, and brought a sprinkling of magic too, although I found the truth to be anti climatic. But as a lover of science fiction and magic maybe I was just hoping for a different outcome.
I enjoyed watching the 3 girls grow up and change, the author brilliantly showcased how parents can truly empower or destroy their children, and how much of our hopes and dreams we put on hold for others. Some changes were dramatic, some subtle yet all had a part to play, again I felt a few of the changes were forced in order to fit into the Cinderella story, although this didn’t make them any less well written or logical.
There was great focus on both inner and outer beauty, told through paintings, character actions and the inner thoughts of Iris as the main character throughout. It was fun and different, a well written, and refreshing change from the beauty being the star of the show, especially as most have little else going for them.
All in all this was a fun read, a new perspective on standard fairy tales, and a story of sisters, parents and selfishness. Definitely don’t do what I did, approach this with an open mind and let the author lead you though the story and you will enjoy it so much more.
Recommended for readers who enjoy historical novels, those about growing up and a sprinkle of magic.
“Is there a relative value of beauty? Is evanescence -fleetingness- a necessary element of the thing that most moves us? A shooting star dazzles more than the sun. A child captivates like an elf, but grows into grossness, an ogre, a harpy. A flower splays itself into color -the lilies of the field!- more treasured than any painting of a flower. But of all these things, women’s grace, a shooting star, flowers and paintings, only a painting endures.”