09 September 2009

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

Iris Fisher’s life has been unenviable of late. Her family fled England after the murder of her father and her Dutch mother, Margarethe, relocated Iris and her sister, Ruth, to Haarlem, Holland. Margarethe soon finds work as a maid for an eccentric painter. Within months, the ever so crafty Margarethe has weaseled her way into a marriage of convenience with a prosperous merchant who has a beautiful but very strange daughter named Clara, better known to the world as Cinderella. Or so Gregory Maguire's version of the Cinderella story goes...

I’ve never been a big fan of the Cinderella story. Oh, don’t get me wrong: The underdog side of the story appeals to me, and I love fantasies, but I’ve always had my doubts about the whole “happily ever after” ending. Plus, that plot just has too many holes: What woman in her right mind would marry a man who spent the entire evening dancing with her, but can only identify her based on her shoes? (I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that Cindy married for money.) With my doubts about the Cinderella myth, I found Maguire’s retelling of the story – through the eyes of one of the ugly stepsisters no less – quite interesting.

One thing I really liked about this book is how well-written it was. Maguire’s narration is witty and eloquent, and he did a great job of writing dialogue that sounds authentically 17th century but is still readable. The precise historical detail really impressed me too – you feel like you’re actually transported back to Holland four hundred years ago. As well told as the story is, the real appeal (for me) was how realistic the characters were. Clever, sensitive, but woefully plain Iris is easy to sympathize with. Although Iris is the heroine, Clara isn’t exactly demonized – she’s bratty and selfish, but she’s definitely not the villain. That honor goes to Margarethe. Margarethe is the a combination of every crass, obnoxious, bossy middle aged woman that you've ever met in your life. She’s terrifying in her authenticity! I actually cringed during scenes that featured her. I also thought Maguire did a skillful job of weaving his subplots in. I usually find the side stories in novels distracting - not so with this book. The depiction of the Dutch Baroque art world is fascinating, and the mysterious, recurrent flashbacks of the Fishers’ flight from England are intriguing. My only complaint: The pacing in the final section (which covers Cinderella’s ball) seemed kind of hurried. After Maguire so methodically and intricately pieced together the background, I thought the resulting climax’s quick pacing seemed a touch abrupt. Then again, Maguire’s take on the ball is so much more logical than the traditional version and the final chapter has such a neat twist, so I can’t complain too much.

I really enjoyed this novel. It's a fun book to read. Maguire did a fantastic job of retelling the Cinderella story while still retaining all of the original elements. I’ve been meaning to read Gregory Maguire's books for a while now. I really hope his other books are as good as this one. I look forward to reading more fairy tales from the "villain's" perspective!


  1. Funny thing concerning this book: my brother gave it to me about two years ago (because of the "ugly stepsister" contained in the title, according to him, haha.)
    Then about a couple of months ago, I suppose he forgot that I already had the book and gave another copy to me, brand new. (Weird much, I know!)
    I have yet to read it, but will look forward to it, thank you! And "Wicked" and a couple of other books by Maguire are worth the read; he's such a talented writer.

  2. Math is a Plentiful Harvest, you're welcome! I really did enjoy it and I hope you like it! (And thank you for commenting!) :)

    You are so right - Maguire is very talented. I really love the way he writes!

    My brother has done that to me too! He bought me the complete Sherlock Holmes collection and then a few yeers later he bought me another complete Sherlock collection. (I kept both of them, because I am huge Sherlock fan!)