Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Book Review: Confessions of An Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

Title: Confessions of An Ugly Stepsister
Author: Gregory Maguire
(Amazon / Goodreads)

Synopsis: We have all heard the story of Cinderella, the beautiful child cast out to slave among the ashes. But what of her stepsisters, the homely pair exiled into ignominy by the fame of their lovely sibling? What fate befell those untouched by beauty ... and what curses accompanied Cinderella's looks?

Set against the backdrop of seventeenth-century Holland, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister tells the story of Iris, an unlikely heroine who finds herself swept from the lowly streets of Haarlem to a strange world of wealth, artifice, and ambition. Iris's path quickly becomes intertwined with that of Clara, the mysterious and unnaturally beautiful girl destined to become her sister. While Clara retreats to the cinders of the family hearth, Iris seeks out the shadowy secrets of her new household -- and the treacherous truth of her former life

This was not my favorite Gregory Maguire book but it was still very good. I'm a big fan of his Wicked Years series and his most recent book, a YA title, Egg & Spoon. To me he is a master at fairy tale retellings, taking the classic stories and giving them a unique and interesting twist. Confessions of An Ugly Stepsister was no different, it just didn't quite have the same magic as some of the other books of his I've read.

One of the things that I really liked about this book was actually one of the things that may have made it not an amazing read. In the Wicked Year and Egg & Spoon we get literal magic. They are fantasy read that take place in fascinating locations with magical spells and witches. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is not Fantasy. I mean maybe you could shelf it that way because of the fairy tale aspect but it's essentially Historical Fiction.The book takes us the Renaissance Holland and the world of the Dutch Master Painters. And while we don't actually encounter real figures like Vermeer and Rembrandt, that is the impression that the book gives. It was interesting to see the book incorporate the history of when the fairy tale could have taken place. It almost gave it more legitimacy. Not to mention the fact that the incorporation of painting and the cultural things from the time like plague and financial trouble made the book even more real and interesting take.

But it was definitely an interesting twist on the story. Not only the setting for the book, but also the characters. To start with, this is the well-known and well-loved Cinderella story told from the perspective of the ugly stepsister. And just like what Gregory Maguire did for the Wicked Witch of the West in Wicked, he does for the stepsister here. Our protagonist Iris, is incredibly sympathetic and likable. She's far from the evil and devious sister we are used to seeing, though she does have her moments. But he also manages to create an interesting Cinderella character who is particularly odious. She's not the demure would be princess that we are used to seeing. She's a little bratty and petulant but it worked. She's not very likable but she is responding to her situation in a completely realistic way and that was incredibly refreshing.

The plot of the book was also a unique twist on the classic tale. It isn't your typical Cinderella story with a fairy god mother, lost shoe, and charming prince. Yes, those elements were there but it was really a story about family, and about the relationship between these sisters. Where Wicked was about political intrigue this was about family dynamics, a subject matter I don't always love in my reading, though the interesting characters did redeem things a little bit. We follow these women as they struggle to better their circumstances in life sometimes in unlikely and less than savory ways. Or maybe that was just because of the characters were walking that grey area between likable and unlikable. Either way it was a fun twist on the Cinderella story.

What I am noticing about Gregory Maguire, the more books of his I read, is that he has a very specific writing style that is hard to describe. The pacing is a bit slower, the prose are a bit more utilitarian, for lack of a better word. It almost gives it this weird sort of brevity like a start and stop kind of style. It's like he puts together a series of moments that are explained in great detail but without many transitions, then it all comes together in the end after a lot of build up. In many of his books that I read that really worked but here it made things hard to get into. I expected to fly through this book, but Maguire forces you to take your time with the story. In the end it was an entertaining read. It didn't give me that satisfying feeling that I was hoping for but it was good.

I give Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire 7.5 out of 10

Buy/Borrow/Bypass: Borrow. Fans of Gregory Maguire should check this book out and experience another one of his interesting takes on a classic story. If you like fairy tale retellings then check this one out, especially if you prefer them on the more historical side. If you are looking for more of a Fantasy read by Maguire I suggest Egg & Spoon or Wicked.

Have you read Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister? Leave me a comment with your thoughts. Thanks for stopping by and HAPPY READING!

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