Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, by Gregory Maguire

Confessions of an
Ugly Stepsister
I've been fascinated by fairy tales. It's not so much that the stories themselves that interest me. The Disneyfied versions in particular turn me off. What interests me are the origins of the stories. Some are cautionary tales that still resonate today. Others may be stories that really happened that turned into myth and legend over time. Gregory Maguire took the Cinderella story and turned back the clock to tell what might have actually happened in Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister.

Shortly before the great Tulip Crash in the late 1630s, two sisters and their mother flee the fens of England to Haarlem. Finding their family dead or gone, the mother, Margarethe, browbeats a local painter into taking them in. The daughters, Ruth and Iris, follow in her wake, get caught up in her schemes, and try to find a place for themselves. Ruth is a mute and treated as a burden by her family. Iris is intelligent, but described as painfully plain. In fact, the only reason the painter takes the family in is to paint Iris for his gallery of god's mistakes. The story that follows is told primarily from Iris' perspective. Through Iris' eyes, Maguire shows you how desperate things could get for women who got caught on the outside, with out family or, let's just say it, a man to take care of them. (In fact, there are hints that Margarethe and her daughters were chased out of England because the townspeople suspected Margarethe of witchcraft.)

Semper Augustus, the most
expensive tulip sold during
the tulip mania. The flower 
is referenced in this book.
Once in Haarlem, Margarethe sets about trying to climb the social ladder and improve her family's lot. She is ruthless, but understandable in her villainy. She's wants to make sure her family doesn't starve. When the painter gets a commission to paint the most beautiful girl in the village, the daughter of a tulip merchant, Margarethe sees the opportunity to jump to the next rung. She finagles her way into a position as the cook and housekeeper for the van den Meer family and Iris is given the task of befriending Clara van den Meer, who isn't allowed to leave the house.

Maguire follows the broad outlines of the Cinderella story. Clara's mother dies and Margarethe marries her father. The father is ruined during the mania and retreats into grief. Clara is given more and more household chores, though she actually seems happy not to be paraded around by her father and stared at by strangers. After some months pass, Marie de Medici, the dowager queen of France, arrives in Haarlem to seek a portraitist and a wife for her nephew, Philippe. A ball is held and Iris sneaks her stepsister, Clara, in, where Clara catches the eye of the prince. There are no supernatural elements in this story, but there are hints of the fairy tale to come in the mundane details.

I liked Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister much more than Wicked. I liked Wicked, too, but Maguire was much more hemmed in by the boundaries of The Wizard of Oz. Cinderella is a much more flexible story. Maguire had more room to explore the characters' motivations, to make the story more psychologically and historically believable. For a novel based on a fairy tale, there was so much realism in Confessions.

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