Monday, April 19, 2010

Review: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
by Gregory Maguire
Fairy Tale
372 pages
published: 1999
For: Once Upon a Time Challenge
4 of 5 stars


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....
We all have 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 exquisite looks?
Extreme beauty is an affliction
Set against the rich 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.
Clara was the prettiest child, but was her life the prettiest tale?
While Clara retreats to the cinders of the family hearth, burning all memories of her past, Iris seeks out the shadowy secrets of her new household--and the treacherous truth of her former life.
God and Satan snarling at each other like dogs.... Imps and fairy godmotbers trying to undo each other's work. How we try to pin the world between opposite extremes!
Far more than a mere fairy-tale, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is a novel of beauty and betrayal, illusion and understanding, reminding us that deception can be unearthed--and love unveiled--in the most unexpected of places. - from Goodreads


I enjoyed this retelling immensely. The author reinvented every character in the story, added background and feeling, and spun the narrative around to resemble no other telling of Cinderella I have encountered. The characters felt real, with personal crosses to bear, their own world view, and near overwhelming flaws. I loved not knowing how the fairy tale was going to mature from that fertile ground. I loved the lack of parallels between this retelling and the standard versions. I cared about Iris, the younger stepsister, and wanted very much for her to find some happiness.

I find retellings that remove much or all of the "magic" and "explain" the magical story by mundane means to be fascinating. Such stories make me wonder about the real world origins of our fairy tales. Park of me wants to think that each one had a "real" version way back when about "real" people, which over time got changed and added to and inflamed to be what we have today. I doubt this is the case, and I don't actually care...but thinking and imagining are the best time ever.

This book explored good and evil and the motivations of each. I loved that through most of the book I saw the stepmother as wrong and misguided, but not necessarily evil. I loved that "Cinderella" was not the most sympathetic character despite, or because of, her beauty. I enjoyed the discussions of beauty.

My favorite quote: "Perhaps charity is the kind of beauty that we comprehend the best because we miss it the most." page 313

The writing was easy and approachable - nothing that stood out or detracted. It was mostly clean (as to language, violence, and sex) save some references toward the end. Though the subjects were mature enough for me to recommend for older teens.

My only complaint was about the narrative twist at the end. And it's not that I didn't enjoy it - it added great depth to the story, answered some questions, and who doesn't love a little surprise? My complaint has more to do with plausibility. I'm afraid that this little gem of a line has been floating through my head since: "I got better." (Don't forget the brogue and the glottal stop.)

(This is from Monty Python's The Holy Grail. I could NOT edit this video, and I know you don't want to watch the whole thing, and will get lost as to my point if you do, so PLEASE fast forward to 1:20 and play until 1:32. It's AWESOME.)

Yah. Check this book out. Then youtube The Holy Grail. You know you want to.


  1. What a great blog! I'm glad I found it. I have been afraid to read anything by Maguire after reading Wicked, which I really didn't like. This one sounds good though.