REVIEW: 'Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister' by Gregory Maguire

I bought this book to read for three reasons:  
  1. I love the story of Cinderella (so much so that when I was young I wrote my own version of the fairy tale, entitled the 90s).
  2. My best friend, who knows how much I love Cinderella, and who also knows that I'd enjoyed Wicked when I read it, recommended it to me. 
  3. My best friend enjoyed this book herself.  I know she has very particular taste when it comes to books. When she makes a recommendation, I know it's for real.
So, was Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire for real?

Yes and no, I guess.  It was an extremely non-traditional telling of the Cinderella story, and I don't just mean the fact that it was told from Iris's (the ugly stepsister's) point of view.  You know how when you see movie previews, the film is always touted as "either based on the true story" or "inspired by the true story"?  I understand "based on" to mean the story is closely linked to actual events.  "Inspired by," therefore, suggests to me that the story is more loosely formed from certain parts of the actual events.  And this Cinderella story was definitely inspired by.

Which doesn't make it dull.  It wasn't a book that I couldn't tear myself away from, but it had its strong points.  There were some great motifs running through the whole thing -- painting, colors, tulips, and senses -- which all served as nice foils to the continued reminders of Iris's ugliness.

The historical references made for interesting reading, too.  Maguire's research of 17th century Holland forms a great backdrop for the tale of the cinder girl.

The cinder girl herself, though (Clara)?  The character seemed awkward and incomplete, and maybe it was because she was out of her classic element.  Her involuntarily-forced-into-servitude element, that is.  Clara's willingness to sweep the hearth and live in solitude was a bit jarring for a long-time Cinderella lover like me.  I'm sure this is what makes this particular version of Cinderella so revolutionary, maybe even sort of feminist -- but I guess I'm more traditional that way.  This may be literary blasphemy, but I prefer strong, sarcastic Cinderellas who turn lemons into lemonade -- like the character of Danielle de Barbarac in the movie Ever After.  In Confessions, Maguire creates a Cinderella who is somewhat of a temperamental hermit.  Her good deeds of caring for the family are based in selfishness, though she struggles to do what is right for herself and her father.  This contrasts more common versions, where Cinderella is justified in running off with her handsome prince and leaving her step-family to suffer; it's a different kind of selfish.  Also in Maguire's version, there is a mystical, mythological element to Clara, but it's never completely explained...which bothers me.

And was the ball supposed to be the climax of this book like it is in other versions?  To me it seemed like a misplaced setting, a mandatory scene that didn't quite fit with the rest...which led to an even more out of place ending.

If you're looking for something different and dark to read, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister may be for you.  But if you're rooted in comparisons to the more watered-down, Disney-esque versions of this fairy tale (as I found out I am), just be aware that you might feel indifferent by the end.  I don't regret reading this book, and I'll never say a book was better left on the shelf.  I'll merely say that -- unlike Cinderella and her prince -- Confessions and I will only be living passably ever after.

UP NEXT: Breaking Dawn, by Stephenie Meyer.  The last Twilight Saga book, y'all!

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