“Beauty has no use at all,” says Margarethe, following her own thoughts. “it has no consequence. It lends nothing to the world. You’re better off without any, my poor daughter.”
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Gregory Maguire pp. 152
We have all heard the story of Cinderella, the beautiful child cast out to slave among the ashes. But what of her stepsisters, the homely pair exiled into ignominy by the fame of their lovely sibling? What fate befell those untouched by beauty ... and what curses accompanied Cinderella's looks?
Set against the backdrop of seventeenth-century Holland, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister tells the story of Iris, an unlikely heroine who finds herself swept from the lowly streets of Haarlem to a strange world of wealth, artifice, and ambition. Iris's path quickly becomes intertwined with that of Clara, the mysterious and unnaturally beautiful girl destined to become her sister. While Clara retreats to the cinders of the family hearth, Iris seeks out the shadowy secrets of her new household -- and the treacherous truth of her former life.
Most people know a version of the Cinderella story – in its most basic form, it involves a poor girl who gets lucky and becomes a princess, usually through defying a stepmother or a father, and in some lavish way where her beauty shines from her ash-ridden face. The earliest Disney-like version is likely Charles Perault’s Cinderella, which carries that theme, adds some stepsisters and a stepmother, and a fairy godmother of sorts, packages it nicely with tales of morals and fear-laden instructions for girls on how to behave. Prior to that, there are tonnes of others – including versions where Cinderella escapes the more amorous advances of her drunken father by dressing like a goat and smelling, and one where the stepsisters’ feet are cut off and the birds peck their eyes out as they flee the castle where their angelic stepsister trills along merrily.
The unifying theme of most of these is the advancement of a young, pious girl through the ranks to her betterment, through her own grace and beauty, much to the chagrin of those who would hold her down. And as such, always told from our heroine’s perspective – see the Disney movie, Ever After, Ella Enchanted, etc. The difference with Maguire’s version of Cinderella is twofold: one, it’s not about piety; and two) it’s definitely (as may have been gleaned from the title) not about Cinderella.
The story, you see, opens up with one of the stepsisters walking through her hometown of Haarlem, in the Netherlands, and hearing a strange tale spun about fairy godmothers, wicked step-family and a beautiful girl marrying a French prince. She sort of takes this in as a surprise, thinking how odd it is that the story of her family is interesting enough to be spun into tales for children, leaving clues as to how gritty and complex the actual story will be.
And then we meet them: the Stepsisters. The older one is Ruth, who is described as oxen-like and mute. Ruth is a silent witness to most of what goes on in the novel, manipulated by all, and yet, she takes in everything that happens with her silent eyes, watching and assessing and understanding. The younger one is Iris – a beautiful name for a girl who thinks she’s ugly, and is told constantly of how ugly she is. Iris is an interesting character – she’s caught up in honouring her own mother, and fighting for what is right, so that more often than not, she ends up thwarted, blamed and rejected – and we are constantly told that this reaction to her efforts leave her believing she could not possibly be worth much, let alone that someone could love her.
Into this mix is thrown Clara – the stuck up insular girl-child of a tulip investor whose mother has kept her away from people, for fear that someone would kidnap her for her beauty. Clara is, at first, an irritating and haughty child and all you want to do is skip her parts. However, as the story progresses, as her hardships begin to pile onto her shoulders, she becomes less like the spoiled child of the first few chapters and more like the girl from the fairy tales – though there is always something of the prideful girl in her.
Unlike Disney and Ever After, this Cinderella story has the stepsisters being friends, more or less. At the least, they tolerate and stand up for each other, covering for one another and encouraging the other to follow her own dreams – they fight, of course – what friends and sisters don’t? But there is an undeniable warmth between these girls that is obviously lacking through the other stories. As the girls grow, they become more and more like complimentary images of one another: Clara resents her beauty and wishes to be more lie Iris, but at the same time, Iris begins to see herself as not so much ugly but more plain, and Ruth begins to say a few short words here and there. Ruth blossoms while taking care of her animals, and Clara while taking care of her father and Iris while at the art studio with Caspar, the Painter’s apprentice, learning how to draw what she sees.
The girls are robust versions of their counterparts in other stories – they are more real then ever, due to their faults and their ambitions, their sadnesses and doubts – they are amazing to watch transform from girls to women, even through all the hardships and foreshadowing – this is, of course, Cinderella.
The majesty of Maguire’s work really does lie in the subtleties of the scenes he puts on the page. Every muttered comment is disguising some other notion, that niggles at your mind, wanting to be expressed, alerting you that there is more than meets the eye – but the getting there is so much better then imagined, that the subtlety is pulled off excellently. The anticipation for the Ball builds with every chapter – and he does draw it out – the Ball itself is very short, only a couple of chapters in comparison to the rest of the story. The preparations, the rumours, the girls and how they react and plan to this news of a well suited prince in town – it all works as a whirlwind that builds an anticipation that leaves your heart clambering in your chest, waiting to see what this spinner of fairy tales will make of the Ball scene.
Readers, he does it grandly.
The nuances of this Ball scene much outdo the others I have read and watched – the anticipation of Clara’s arrival is buffered by Iris’ and Caspar’s misunderstandings and yearnings, the Prince’s strange expectations of women – and the frankly, funny portrayal of the Duchess.
I won’t spoil any of it, but it is quite well written – so well written that you can see the flames lick the paint as the climax unfolds.
If you are aware of Maguire’s other works – particularly the Wicked stories, you will note his style almost immediately – the way he manipulates words and draws you into this world is uniquely his, so that even while you read about the Duchess falling asleep at her own party, you think about the elephant queen in Son of a Witch, and even as you follow around Iris – a girl who thinks she is ugly, you flash back to Elphaba and Candle. It is remarkable how an author can draw so many allusions and literary leaps with so few words. Maguire doesn’t need to make a brick of his work – he needs only to express the world he sees, and you’re hooked.
I highly recommend Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister – for its female characters, it’s world building and its twisty ending. I took a while to read it but now that I have, I find it an irreplaceable part of my library.
Up Next to Review : Ted Dekker’s Boneman’s Daughters
Read if you liked:
- · Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
- · Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce
- · Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
- · Wicked by Gregory Maguire