“Confessions of an ugly stepsister” by Gregory Maguire

Confessions
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This story, as you can probably imagine, is an alternative take on Cinderella. Gregory Maguire writes fiction based on fairy tales or older stories, but writes from a different point of view – the bad guy. His other story, that was turned into a Broadway musical, was based on the Wizard of Oz, and told from the Wicked Witch’s side.

Confessions did the same thing. He wrote it from the stepsisters point of view. Now, because of the route he chooses to take with his stories, hard-core fans may not approve. He writes his stories in such a way that the “bad guy” we have come to know, is a misunderstood good guy. And the “good guy” is less so. I love seeing a different side to some of my favorite stories. The original stories are written to glorify the good guy and make them seem innocent and sweet, and the opponent horrible and cruel. But what if that story was mis-told to make the heroine seem better than she actually was?

Confessions is told from the point of view of Iris, the younger of the two sisters. Their life doesn’t start when Cinderella’s story does, it starts much earlier. After their father was brutally murdered by an angry mob, their mother took them and fled England in the middle of the night. She took the girls back to Holland where her family originated. Expecting to find a warm welcome at her Grandfathers house, she instead finds new owners that have no ties to her or obligations to help her, and a funeral notice for her Grandfather. The small family is forced back out onto the street, hungry and tired. Margarethe is then forced to beg and look for some kind of work. They eventually find an old painter who is willing to house them, so long as they clean his house and gather flowers for his paintings every day. He has no money to pay them, but instead houses and feeds them in exchange.

Another family commissions the Master to paint their daughter Clara, after seeing his painting of Iris. Clara is a willful and borderline cruel child because she has grown up raised on a platform and protected from the world. Her family has money because of her mothers dowry and their sales of tulip bulbs. She is exceptionally beautiful, but sheltered. Her mother keeps her indoors, forbidding her to go outside except for the small backyard and shed where they grow their tulips. Because Clara can not leave the house to have her painting done, the Master must go there. In return, they make a deal that as long as he is painting Clara, Iris is to assist and tutor her, and Margarethe and Ruth can help in the kitchen.

With this job Margarethe gets a small payment, and is in control of a much larger house. When Clara’s mother Henrika announces that she is pregnant, Margarethe becomes more important to the household. She has made herself indispensable, so that they have no reason to be rid of her, even though her words are cruel and she openly argues with the van den Meer’s.

Through the entire story you feel sorry for Iris and Ruth, even though Disney portrays them as ugly, cruel adults, the girls are in fact quite young and kind. Iris looks after Ruth because she is slow and cannot look after herself. Iris is actually quite intelligent, even though her mother has refused to give her any kind of schooling. She is imaginative, and the Master asks her to apprentice under him (along with his other that Iris falls in love with) because he believes she has talent in the arts.

There are very strong themes of beauty in this story. Clara’s visual beauty versus Iris’s internal beauty. The Masters ability to capture beauty, the beauty in a flower, and the beauty of charity. It’s quite interesting to read the different views Maguire has on the subject. I am a firm believer in internal beauty, and Margarethe, in her own weird way, tries to reinforce that within Iris as well. External beauty fades with age, but internal beauty never does. And Iris’s kindness and wit makes her a truly beautiful character. The way she looks after her sister, does what she can to protect and look after Clara (even though in the beginning Clara was incredibly rude to her) the way she still looks after her mother after everything Margarethe has said to her.

After Clara’s mother passes, the story starts to take a familiar path. Margarethe marries into the van den Meer family and Clara becomes her stepdaughter. Clara refuses to acknowledge her and does everything to go against what Margarethe wants.

This is where it gets really interesting. Clara is now allowed to venture outside but becomes so terrified of the town and the people that she takes to doing chores so she can stay busy and stay inside. She even goes so far as to hide whenever the door is opened, to make sure she avoids the prying eyes of older men. So instead of being forced into servitude, she goes willingly. She even starts coming up with nicknames for herself and eventually “Cinderella” becomes the commonly used term.

It is a very different take on the fairy tale. It follows the same line, but instead of clear “good” and “evil” like most fairy tales adopt, this one is just shades of grey. Margarethe is just trying to provide for herself and her daughters, and Clara is just trying to be comfortable in her own home. It is a very interesting look at the story, and it is really well written.

Even though there is no magic and fairy godmothers, there is still the sense of magic and mystery. I really enjoyed the alternate telling, and liked the different light the “stepsisters” are shown in. I really recommend this book.

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