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100 Books in a Year: Confessions of an Ugly Step-Sister by Gregory Maguire

By Figgy | Books | March 16, 2009 |

By Figgy | Books | March 16, 2009 |

What a strange, wonderful and disturbing book this was. I finished it this morning, and the first thing I can think of to tell you is to not start your day with this book. It will mess you up.

Gregory Maguire is well known for taking traditional, over-sweetened fairy tales and rewriting them in a style reminiscent of those “E! True Hollywood Story” shows—real, dark and gritty. I read Wicked (the “true” story of the Wicked Witch of the East from The Wizard of Oz) a few years ago, and loved it, despite it being very dark, depressing, and a bit confusing. Maguire took the entire mythology of Oz (the movie, at least) and turned it upside down, putting the characters in a truly frightening, depraved world that was violent and sunk into political intrigue. It was a fantastic book, though it lost a little steam towards the end, and it was certainly memorable enough to make me want to read more of his books.

In Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Maguire takes this same idea of telling the “true” stories behind fairytales, and produces another amazing piece of work. In this case, he uses the story of Cinderella, the story of the perfect girl with the evil stepmother and the ugly stepsisters, who charms her prince thanks to a fairy godmother and the help of a glass slipper. Maguire’s version is nowhere near this happy.

The “real” story takes place in Holland. The Fisher family, Margarethe (the mother) and her two daughters, Iris and Ruth, land in Haarlem after escaping persecution in England. They are penniless and are forced to beg for shelter in the streets. They are taken in by a tortured painter who lets them stay in his house in exchange for housekeeping and for letting Iris sit for him for paintings and studies. Iris is plain and ungainly, but smart, and her sister Ruth is a huge, mentally challenged girl who is considered nothing but a burden by her mother. Margarethe is conniving and largely unsympathetic, always trying to find a way to get ahead by whatever means necessary. Eventually, the girls and their mother are admitted into the service of the wealthy Van de Meer family, who hope that Iris will befriend their sheltered, beautiful daughter Clara. A while later, Clara’s mother dies, Margarethe marries the widower and thus becomes the evil stepmother in the story, with Clara being the tortured Cinderella. Clara becomes a servant by her own will, however, tired of being admired and used for her looks alone, and Margarethe is more than happy to beat down the girl who once held such a high place. The climax of the book takes place at a ball, of course, but other than in the basic points, this story has nothing to do with the Cinderella we all know.

The world that Maguire creates is superficially bland and common, but underneath it’s full of demons and imps, a place where everyone has bad intentions and no one is ever truly happy. It’s a dirty, cynical world that Iris (the main character of the book) carefully observes, disgusted but helpless at her mother’s (and other people’s) actions. Iris’s plainness, which she considers so crippling, is contrasted to Clara’s beauty, crippling in its own way. Clara is largely unhappy, even more after her mother dies, and she is largely useless in the world except as a beautiful thing coveted by everyone who sees her. Iris is smart and witty, and she comes to understand that being as beautiful as Clara is isn’t something to be envied but pitied, something that makes her angry and sad at the same time. These are two wonderfully written characters, neither completely likable or sympathetic (though Iris is by far a more approachable character) played against each other as they try to survive Margarethe’s plots, dealing with an ugly world that is particularly harsh towards women.

There are all sorts of twists and turns to the story, with Maguire mixing in bits of myths and superstitions, sometimes so well that it’s easy to confuse reality with things that the characters are making up. He is a hugely talented, imaginative and original writer, and I can easily say I’ve never read anything like this book before. It’s a better work than Wicked, more realistic and coherent, a quick read if you want it to be, though you’re likely to miss little hints and details if you don’t read it slowly. And as I said before, it’s not a happy or light-hearted book at all, but it’s a unique take on an old story, and a truly great, memorable read. It’s a good reminder that all fairy-tales came from somewhere, and that it’s likely that not all of them ended with a happily-ever-after.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read. Details about here and the growing number of participants and their blogs, from which these reviews are pulled, are here. And check here for more of Figgy’s reviews.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.