Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire is a retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale that most of us know decently well from the author that has retold other well known stories such as Snow White (Mirror Mirror) and The Wizard of Oz (Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West). This is the story of what could have actually happened to inspire the fairy tale we’ve come to know.
The story begins with a mother and her two young daughters arriving in Holland in the 17th century. The family is fleeing tragic events in England and has no financial prospects with a lack of men and sons. A kind painter takes in the family in exchange for housekeeping duties and the use of one of the daughters as a model. A commission to paint the daughter of a local tulip merchant inspires the painter to produce his greatest work ever, and provides the opportunity for our family to move up and become servants for the wealthy merchant family.
Tragedy strikes the merchant family with the death of the wife, which sets the stage for our mother to marry the wealthy merchant. Alas, there is now a stepmother, two step daughters, and beautiful Clara – the subject of our painter’s masterpiece. A royal visit comes, and there is indeed a ball with a missing slipper and all. The pieces are all there, if not in quite the way expected.
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is much more than a retold fairy tale; it is a literary tale of the meaning of beauty, of misfortune, ambition, deception, abuse and even love. The writing is easy to read and fast paced for a book without much action. While you’ll probably find the book shelved in the sci-fi/fantasy section, the tale is grounded in reality and truly contains no fantastical elements beyond metaphor.
If you want magical beasts, epic battles, and masculine heroes, this book is not the book you are looking for. If you are looking for a tale that is relatively true to its historical place about the coming of age of young women, the ambition of elders, of beauty and love; this is the book for you. I’ve also read and enjoyed Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Maguire and found this book to be similar, if more subtle. I enjoyed Wicked more, but found the quality of writing and flow of the narrative to be better done in Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister.
On my rating scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is unsurpassed, 5 is a take-it or leave-it book, and less than 5 would not generally be recommended, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister scores a 6.5. The book is an enjoyable read, with a lot to say beyond the retelling of a fairy tale, but in the end, it is a subject matter that I can’t claim to be overly attracted to. However, the book is well done enough to earn a recommendation.