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

Author : Deborah Rodriguez

Release Date : Dec. 17, 2007

This novel is a true-to-life adventure of a certified hairdresser from Michigan, Deborah Rodriguez who “in 2002,  helped form the Kabul Beauty School, the first modern beauty school and training salon in Afghanistan” (About the Author page __The Kabul Beauty School).  In a country that has mixed feelings on the moralities of beauty salons (unbelievable but true), Deborah’s achievement is all about overcoming cultural barriers and giving hope.

With a germ of an idea and a “can-do” attitude, she raises sponsorships from U.S. cosmetic companies, sometimes personally funding her classes, and practically doing everything she could think of to get the school up and running___even marrying an Afghan so she could stay protected in a country so hostile to women.

Deborah is one person I would like to meet.  Through her book, she strikes me as a bohemian character, energetic, gutsy, quirky, self confident, uninhibited and above all, a woman with a big heart.  I think I will like her if only for the fact that like me, she enjoys a good book with a margarita or two. 

The Kabul Beauty School is an easy, enjoyable read with a down-to-earth writing style and lots of humor to balance genuine, heart-breaking accounts of the women the author has gotten to know.  Surprisingly, there isn’t a whiff of condescension; just sadness at the fact that women in Afghanistan are going through unbelievable oppression.  But the author’s natural optimism still sees hope through the indomitable spirit of Afghan women.  Amidst the pain of cultural subjugation , these women could still find something to laugh about and to hope for , enough to fight for their own personal betterment. In the author’s unique way, she saw their salvation in perms, hair color, and make-up!

I started reading this book in a cafe where I spent two hours sipping my glasses of soda and giggling my way through the pages.  One of the many hilarious paragraphs that gave me the giggles:

“Then I pointed my scissors at Daud.  He had a haircut that was pretty typical of the Afghan men I had seen so far–a sort of pompadour trimmed short in the back with a wad of hair puffed up on top.  It was like the hairdo Elvis had sported in his most hideous days, when he was wearing those tight leather pants and awful capes made by the Ice Capades people.  I hated it. …..”

“…We begin with the parts of Roshanna that no one will see tonight except her husband.  Traditional Afghans consider body hair to be both ugly and unclean, so she must be stripped of all of it except for the long, silky brown hair on her head and her eyebrows.  There can be no hair left on her arms, underarms, face or privates…We lead Roshanna down the corridor to the waxing room–the only one in Afghanistan, I might add…Many brides are either too modest or too fearful to have their pubic hair removed by others, so they do it at home–they either pull it out by hand or rip it out with chewing gum.  Either way, the process is brutally painful.  Besides, it’s hard to achieve the full Brazilian–every pubic hair plucked, front and back–when you do it on your own, even if you’re one of the few women in this country to own a large mirror, as Roshanna does.”

You will find this book, funny, sad, outrageous, and candid all at the same time.  It may pique your curiosity to learn more about Afghan culture after this book.  It most certainly did for me.  I thoroughly enjoyed every minute reading it.

I pray Deborah will be able to return to Kabul in the years to come, without fear of reprisals for her book or for simply empowering some women to learn a trade.   Her commitment to open opportunities to Afghan women for making a decent living should be an inspiration to all those who wish to make a difference in this world.

My Mark : Excellent