Cyndy Aleo's Reviews > Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire
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May 21, 11


Having fallen in love with Gregory Maguire's Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, I was desperate to read whatever else I could get my hands on that he had written. An Amazon gift certificate windfall resulted in ordering Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Maguire's retelling of the classic tale of Cinderella.

::: They're Not Your Average Family :::

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister retells the story of Cinderella with a change in focus from Cinderella to the legendary "ugly" stepsisters: Iris and Ruth. Iris is intelligent, if very plain, and Ruth is described as large and, from the sounds of it, functionally retarded. They find themselves in Holland with their mother, Margarethe, after their father is killed in England by angry villagers looking for someone to blame for the loss of crops from a flood. Margarethe returns to the land of her birth hoping to stay with her father, but when she and her daughters return to Holland, she discovers that her father is dead, leaving the small family destitute and begging.

Margarethe finds herself a place as a servant in the home of the artist Schoonmaker, with Ruth assigned to gathering flowers and Iris assigned to sitting for the Master. Iris is drawn to the Master's apprentice, Caspar, who encourages her to appreciate art. A portrait of Iris leads to the mother and daughters gaining employment in the house of one of the town's wealthiest merchants, van den Meer, whose daughter Clara ostensibly needs a playmate. Once installed in the van den Meer household, Margarethe's scheming abilities are readily apparent as she manages to end up van den Meer's wife (after the wife allegedly dies of the plague) and push Clara, who dubs herself Cindergirl, into kitchen duties while she plays lady of the manor.

After Margarethe's greed and nagging lands van den Meer in bankruptcy after too much speculation on the tulip market, an opportunity presents itself for the family: a ball for the godson of a very wealthy woman. Margarethe makes sure that she will attend, as well as Ruth and Iris, but offers Clara no assistance, and Clara is all too happy to remain the house, where her mother had imprisoned her for her entire childhood after an apparent kidnapping. Iris, however, is determined that Clara will attend the ball as well, and gets Caspar to assist in getting Clara to the ball. Iris is the first person to catch the prized godson's fancy at the ball due to her intellect and ability to speak English as well as Dutch. However, the minute Clara makes her mysterious appearance behind a veil, the godson is captivated, and finds her via the shoes she wore, which had been stolen from Margarethe.

The real question, however, is whether or not the godson is a "Prince Charming" and whether Clara's life afterward really has a happily ever after ending.

::: Ugly Stepsister as Heroine? :::

Throughout the book, Ruth is little more than an albatross around Iris' neck, and Clara a victim of circumstances, first convinced that she is a changeling child, then forced into servitude by the desperately-social-climbing Margarethe. Iris, however, makes your heart bleed. Resigned to her plain looks and taught by her mother than her intelligence is nothing that will net her a husband, Iris has become the shrinking wallflower in all of us. Her innate curiosity about art is quickly noticed by Schoonmaker, who entreats Margarethe to let her apprentice to him after the family leaves his household for van den Meer's.

Margarethe, however, is convinced only of suffering, and allows Iris to go for a short time only because Clara takes over Iris' chores, reasserting her authority as mistress of the house. Seeing her delight in her new role leaves the reader noticing that it might not have been a very far stretch at all for her to have helped van den Meer's wife to her grave.

Maguire has a way with getting his readers to look at a familiar tale in a different light and making it believable. It's very difficult to change your way of thinking to such an extreme, yet Iris is so believable as a character you can't help but wonder if the fairy tale got it all wrong to begin with, an amazing feat. However, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister doesn't quite reach the incredible power of Wicked, which was so convincing that by the end of the novel, I hated both the Wizard and stupid, feckless Dorothy. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister won't have you rooting for the downfall of Cinderella, but it will definitely give you pause as you wonder how many people are maligned simply because they weren't as attractive as the person they were standing next to when a big even occurred. I'd probably have given Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister five stars had I not read Wicked first.

This review previously published at Epinions: http://www.epinions.com/review/Confes...
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