Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Trade, 372 pages, 1999

Rating: 6/10

Reason for Reading: It generated a lot of love/hate opinions at BookCrazy, so I had to see which camp I fell into.

Synopsis: An alternate look at the story of Cinderella, told through the eyes of a step-sister made out to be more an ugly victim of circumstance than a wicked person. Iris and Ruth’s mother take them to Holland after the death of their father, where they take up with a painter, doing his chores and Iris trying to learn his trade, while their mother tries to make a better place for them all in society.

Why you should read this book: The book has an interesting premise: time has twisted ‘what really happened’ in a classic fairytale, and Maguire is presenting us with the ‘real’ version. The book is a fairly light historical read, never getting bogged down in details. The writing is good and the story moves swiftly along.

Why you should avoid this book: A lot of the time, it just feels like the book is trying too hard to fit into the original story, or blatantly pointing out how it’s different so Maguire could try and have an original storyline behind the short story of the Brothers Grimm. Taken as a historical novel, there’s a lot better out there. Everything feels deliberately vague, as though minimal research went into the effort. Maguire had a lot to work with in the wonderfully dark Grimm tale, but his end result feels more Disneyfied than anything. Another frustration is poor and uncultured characters who read and speak as eloquently as royalty without explanation, and that’s as close to fantasy as you’ll get in this different angle on the Cinderella story.

Opening paragraph:

Hobbling home under a mackerel sky, I came upon a group of children. They were tossing their toys in the air, by turns telling a story and acting it too. A play about a pretty girl who was scorned by her two stepsisters. In distress, the child disguised herself to go to a ball. There, the great turnabout: She met a prince who adored her and romanced her. Her happiness eclipsed the plight of her stepsisters, whose ugliness was the cause of high merriment.

Fabulous quotes:

‘Everyone so cheery this morning,’ says the Master hastily. ‘Well, no matter. My own blemished self will have to serve. What are you chattering about, Iris?’

‘I’ve seen how you paint my face,’ says Iris. She has thought the words out, and struggles to say them in an even voice. ‘You view me with humor and contempt. You’ve made me look the fool. I already look the fool in my own eyes. I won’t be put forward to look the fool to the world.’

‘So, you’ve broken my law, and peered at the paintings the moment my back is turned?’ The Master’s voice is distant-thundery soft.

‘There’s not a household in Haarlem that would approve of this proposal,’ says Iris.
‘Approval is overrated,’ says Caspar, parroting his teacher. ‘Appvoval and disapproval alike satisfy those who deliver it more than those who receive it. I don’t care for approval, and I don’t mind doing without.’

Also recommended: The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm by Jack Zipes (translator); Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling; Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.

Also by this author: Son of a Witch; Mirror, Mirror; Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West; Lost.

Author’s website:

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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