Wednesday, August 16, 2006

#44 Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

My Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is a retelling of the Cinderella story which takes place in 17th Century Holland. While it retains a lot of similarity to the original story, at least more so than some of the other Cinderella stories we’ve read so far, most of the “magical” and otherworldly events have been given more real-world characteristics.

The cast opens with two sisters, Ruth and Iris, and their shrewd mother Margarethe, who are fleeing England by boat to Holland. Margarethe, originally from Holland herself, had moved to England when she married, and upon the death of her husband, assumed she’d be able to find family in Holland to live with until she could get her family back on their feet. Ruth, the eldest sister, is described as a simpleton: she’s rather large, learning-impaired, and somewhat mute. Iris, a few years younger, is very astute and smart, though rather plain looking. It is around these three characters that the story primarily revolves.

Since any remaining family Margarethe once had in Holland has all since passed on, the three are left to travel from house to house, seeking shelter in exchange for work. After a short stay with the Master, where Iris develops an eye for art, they’re taken into the van den Meer household, where we meet Clara, our Cinderella, a cloistered and coddled youngster whose forbidden to leave the house, and has since become too afraid to do so anyway. This initial portrayal of Clara, at least with regards to physical attributes, is not unlike the traditional Cinderella: she is a shy, beautiful girl with delicate features and golden blonde hair.

Shortly after Margarethe and her daughters have moved in to the van den Meer household, helping in the kitchen and with other household duties, Henrika van den Meer, Clara’s mother, falls ill and eventually dies. Margarethe, ever the shrewd plotter, instantly sees a way for her to elevate her position in the household and announces her upcoming betrothal to Cornelius van den Meer, Clara’s father. She then decides that housework is beneath her and assigns the majority of the household duties to her daughters. Clara, ever the spoiled little rich girl, initially refuses to help out, but once she realizes she can escape Margarethe for most of the day by working in the kitchen, she eventually resigns herself, discarding her beautiful dresses in favor of the rags of a house maid. She sleeps on the hearth and calls herself Cinderella, or Cindergirl or Ashgirl.

Of course, we eventually have the infamous ball. And like in the traditional story, Margarethe wishes to promote one of her daughters, Iris in this case, to the attentions of the Prince. Besides, the family has fallen on hard times due to market crashes, and Margarethe sees dollar signs with the possibility of Iris’s marriage to the Prince. But Iris is convinced of her dour looks, and would instead prefer to see Clara attend the ball, if only to cheer her up a bit. She also figures that Clara has a much better chance of snaring the Prince than she herself. All this can only help the family, as both Iris and Margarethe realize, and we see how Iris is very much like her mother, but in a much less ruthless way.

Clara finally agrees to attend the ball if she can go with her face veiled, as if in mourning or penance. And as expected, she catches the attention of the Prince on her arrival. The two eventually retire to a back room with a bottle of champagne while the party goes on out in the main room. When a fire in one of the rooms of the Pruyns estate breaks out, all the guests flee, including Clara, Iris, Ruth, and Margarethe. The Prince, knowing Clara not by her true name but by Clarissa of Aragon, is unable to locate her again and sets out on his quest the following day to find who fits the slipper Clara has left behind in her haste. The slipper is made of soft white kid leather (not glass), originally Margarethe’s who hasn’t been able to wear them since her eyes have started to go. But once at the van den Meer household, the Prince also accuses someone in the house of starting the fire at the Pruyns mansion the night before. It is here he finds his Clarissa, who begs the Prince to shield her family from harm, no matter their faults or wrongful actions.

And they live happily ever after… ;)

Of course, there’s a whole back-story to this tale too, with the Master and his paintings, and an attraction between Iris and the Master’s apprentice, that adds a lot to the traditional story. And I really thought it went a long way towards enhancing the story too, making everyone and everything seem more “real” and less like a fairy tale. On reading this story, one could easily imagine that everything could very well have happened as was told here. I’d highly recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t yet read it, whether they’re Cinderella fans or not.