Everyone knows the story of Cinderella.  But Gregory Maguire takes us a step backward to see the story behind the story.  He deromanticizes the fairy tale and creates a realism behind it, adding a new dimension to a traditional story while staying true to the original framework.

This is my fourth read for Fall Into Reading 2009 challenge.  Four more to go.


Author :  Gregory Maguire

Date of First Publication :  October 6, 1999 (Hardcover)

Publisher :      William Morrow

ISBN-10: 0060392827

ISBN-13: 978-0060392826

Hardcover: 384 pages

The Story :

Margarethe and her two daughters, Iris (plain but clever) and Ruth (an ugly simpleton), flee England in the dead of night and sail for Holland.  Destitute and friendless, the family is forced to beg for their survival.  At last, a painter offers them board and lodging in exchange for housework and the permission for the plain daughter, Iris, to sit as a model for his canvas.  So for a while, the family is happily fed and secure.

A prosperous tulip merchant,  Cornelius van den Meer,  drops by at the painter’s studio one day and offers to buy the painting of Iris. However as a condition of sale,  Iris must accompany the painting to live in the great house and serve as a companion to Clara, the merchant’s extraordinarily beautiful but reclusive daughter. Margarethe sees this as an opportunity for greener pastures and loses no time insinuating herself and her other daughter in the deal.  Soon, she makes herself indispensable to the van den Meer household.

As tragedy would have it,  Cornelius’ wife and Clara’s mother, dies in childbirth.  Gritty Margarethe sees the opportunity to secure her family’s future and finds a way to marry the merchant.  Meanwhile, Clara, depressed and insecure upon her mother’s death and the marriage of her father to Margarethe, consigns herself to the kitchen, covers herself with ash and acquires a new name, Cinderella.  She declares her beauty a burden and seeks solace in the anonymity of kitchen drudgery.

But, tragedy does strike twice.  The tulip trade is disrupted; so soon,  the merchant  finds himself on the brink of poverty.   Unwilling to face hunger and indignity again, Margarethe makes a last ditch effort.  She prepares herself and her daughters for the coming ball where she, in her determination, believes plain Iris would capture the Prince’s interest with her intelligence.  Beautiful Clara, to Margarethe’s delight, refuses to go and parade herself for the Prince. Margarethe knows that Clara’s beauty would surely awe the Prince and that her marriage to him, coupled with her disdain for her stepmother, would land her family back in the poorhouse.

But unbeknown to Margarethe, Iris convinces Clara to get out of her shell and attend the party of the decade.  She secures a gown and a veil for Clara to hide under.  Clara appears at the ball, radiantly mysterious and gets the Prince’s undivided attention.  The rest is history with the glass slipper, coach, the midnight run  and all.

The Review :

Between the stark delineations of the good and the bad in any fairy tale, Maguire steps in to create a gray world — is the bad really that bad or just misunderstood?

Much like history or any story for that matter, fairy tales are told from a point of view, this being mostly from the hero’s .    Gregory Maguire is known as an author who loves to turn a fairy tale inside out with a resounding concept : “Let’s hear it from the other side”.

As with “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West”, Maguire gives a voice to the villains, , telling the story from their perspective, and imbuing these much maligned characters with more humanity.  His intention is to relate how the forces of personality and circumstance that  influence  reactions and decisions,  coupled with the judgmental character of human nature, easily cast people  into roles of iniquity or seeming goodness.  Hence, there are always two sides to a coin;  and it is never two-dimensional.

In this vein, the author tackles duality in such concepts as beauty, love, compassion, greed — for instance, beauty as both blessing and curse, greed as both corruptible and necessary;  so that this is no mere fairy tale rehash but one with a purpose to provide some rumination on the abstracts of good and bad.

To Read Or Not To Read :

Confessions Of An Ugly Stepsister” holds almost true to the Cinderella plot outline, except for the setting, Holland, and an event toward the end. It is quite entertaining how Maguire weaves a realistic background to the simple framework of the fairy tale. Told through the perspective of Iris, one of Cinderella’s or Clara’s stepsisters, we get a grip on why the Cinderella story had been spun so.

Because of the author’s inclination toward establishing the events and characters on which Cinderella’s story evolved to be what it is, readers may find half of the book a bit slow paced.

Although Maguire’s framework is commendable and his writing intentions, successful; there are nevertheless, a vagueness in Maguire’s writing here that I wish were clearer. To cite a few:   Clara (Cinderella) is somewhat a vague character and the reader may not be able to get a good understanding on what makes her tick. We are given the impression of a recluse, someone afraid of life. However, she suddenly does an about face by being very bold with the Prince, a stranger, at the ball. Also, Clara’s experience as a child at the windmill is left to imagination. What was it really? This, and some others, may irritate a reader who appreciates straightforwardness and specifics; but for those can live with conjecture, this shouldn’t be much of a bother.

In A Nutshell :

Although, not as good as his other novel, “Wicked….” , “Confessions Of An Ugly Stepsister” is nevertheless, still a pleasurable read, a satisfying deconstruction and reinvention of Cinderella that would appeal to those who love stories thought “out of the box”.

My Mark  :  Very Good

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