Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

200px-ConfessionsUglyStepsisterTitleConfessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Gregory Maguire 1999, Harper

“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.”

I used to be an addict for fairytale retellings and read as many as I could find. I tend to just go through phases now and picked this up a while ago. It is a retelling of Cinderella set in Holland and the setting is dirty, realistic and grim as are the appearance of many of the characters. Underneath, Maguire hints of imps and changelings and magic.

Margarethe and her two daughters arrive in Holland from England penniless and are taken in by a bad-tempered painter who has a locked room full of monstrous paintings. He paints Iris, the ugly stepsister who is the protagonist of the story and through her eyes we see the powerful Van de Meer family and their beautiful sheltered daughter, Clara. Many of the original fairy tale incidents happen in the book but many times I forgot this was Cinderella which is a credit to Maguire’s world building. The climax of the story takes place at a prince’s ball but nothing goes the way you expect.

Beauty is a theme that plays heavily in the story as it does in the original fairytale of Cinderella but here Maguire shows us that Clara’s loveliness in a world where women are treated like objects is not a blessing. He shows us again and again that Iris’s plain face and her cleverness and passion for painting give her freedom that Clara can only dream of and so it is the beautiful Clara who envies Iris and Iris who feels pity and anger.

None of any of the characters are particularly likeable. Margarethe is conniving and hard and manipulative, Clara is selfish and petty, Iris is not very sympathetic but the world they are in is harsh to women and illustrates partly how they got this way.

It is a good read. I especially like the full-page illustrations in this edition which are whimsical and gothic and go well with the story. This is a very interesting and unusual retelling of Cinderella that criticises the obsession many fairy tales have with Beauty and I enjoyed reading it. I just wished I had liked the characters more.

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