I’ve been on a Gregory Maguire binge lately. Not so much because I’ve been loving his books, but more because they’ve been taking up space on my shelves and I wanted to know if they deserved their place! I recently tore through the Wicked Years series, then listened to Mirror, Mirror (which I didn’t like enough to bother reviewing). The sixth and final Maguire title on my shelves was Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister.
About the Book:
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is, as you might guess from the title, a retelling of the classic fairytale Cinderella — the “real” version behind the legend.
Margarethe and her two daughters, Iris and Ruth, arrive in the Netherlands, Margarethe’s country of birth, after a violent incident in their adopted home country of England. Ruth, the older sister, is large and slow of mind; Iris is plain but quick-witted. After searching and begging for work, the three finally find a temporary place with a painter whose star seems poised to rise. But power-hungry Margarethe cannot be content with her place and is always on the lookout for opportunities to climb the social ladder, no matter the cost.
Of all the novels by Gregory Maguire I’ve read — six in all — I think this one was my favorite. I still didn’t love it, but at least it told a good story without slipping into too much darkness (the way Wicked, my second favorite, eventually did).
I liked Iris, as I think you’re supposed to. She’s curious and clever, the only logical one in her family. The story is told in limited third person through her eyes, which opens her character up more than the others’. She is still mostly a child as the story unfolds, but you can see the beginnings of the adult she’ll grow into forming before your eyes. The other character I liked especially was Caspar, the painter’s apprentice. Good-natured and friendly, he is kind to Iris when the rest of the world is cruel.
Mild spoiler alert!
I appreciated that the precious Clara (our Cinderella) was not as unwillingly consigned to a servant’s life as she is in the Disney version. Margarethe may be borderline insane, but her daughters mean Clara no harm, and no one forces her to live out her days amongst the fireplace ashes. She is so much more human than the usual portrayal of this particular role, and I appreciated that.
The writing style, the bizarre tidbits of eccentricity, the tinge of dark magical/mysterious presence — all those elements I’ve come to expect from Maguire are present in Confessions. What I appreciated about this book more than his others is that he stayed on track, kept a few of the characters sufficiently likable, and resisted plunging too deeply into weirdness or darkness. All of that meant his creativity around crafting the “real” version of a well-known fairytale could shine.
As with the others of his books, though I own the print copies, I listened to Confessions. It was read by Jenny Sterlin, who did a nice job. Her narration never got in the way of the story, which is the mark of a good reader in my opinion. (A great one brings the character s/he narrates for to life; Sterlin didn’t quite reach that level.)
The Verdict: Enjoyable
Honestly, if someone asked me where to start with Gregory Maguire’s stuff, I’d probably recommend Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, followed by Wicked if the person liked Maguire’s style. It won’t be making my favorites list, but it was enjoyable enough to listen to.