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Gregory Maguire – Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

July 19, 2010

79. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire (1999)

Length: 372 pages

Genre: Historical Fiction, Fairy-tale Retelling

Started: 08 July 2010
Finished: 10 July 2010

Where did it come from? A local used bookstore.
Why do I have it? When I bought it, I’d read Wicked and liked it, and I typically enjoy fairy tale retellings in general.

How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 17 August 2006. (It’s not the absolute oldest book on my TBR pile, but it is the oldest book on my TBR pile since I started keeping track of book acquisitions.)

It’s Cinderella
minus the singing mice and
plus some Dutch painting.

Summary: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is, unsurprisingly, a retelling of the Cinderella story, this time set in Holland during the Renaissance. The spirited but ugly Iris and her large, mute, and slow sister Ruth have fled with their mother to Holland after the death of their father in England. When they get there, they find that their relatives are dead, and are taken in as housekeepers by a talented but temperamental painter. When he is hired by a rich tulip merchant to paint a portrait of his daughter, Iris and her family go with him, but Clara is a beautiful young child – so beautiful that she is rumored to be a changeling. In a culture in which so much value is placed on beauty, how can Iris possibly find a sense of worth when placed in comparison with Clara?

Review: As a rule, I generally really enjoy fairy-tale retellings; I appreciate writers who can take the familiar stories and place them in a totally different context that allows them to play with the meaning and message of the story. On that score, Gregory Maguire is pretty reliable; he’s made a living out of doing exactly that. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister wasn’t as much of a revelation for me as was Wicked, nor did I think it merged the fairy tale into historical fiction as neatly as did Mirror, Mirror. Still, Maguire used the familiar story to make some interesting points about beauty, and identity, and the value of learning to see, none of which I would have gotten from the Cinderella tale on my own, but which were a natural fit in his hands.

My problem was that I just didn’t find the characters particularly interesting, nor the story particularly compelling. I didn’t connect with – or even particularly like – any of the characters, finding the ones with weak personalities annoying and the strong-personalitied ones obnoxious. Cinderella is also one of the less-fantastical fairy tales, but in this retelling Maguire gets rid of the magic altogether, leaving only the “changeling” storyline as a mostly unsuccessful sop to the sense of wonder and whimsy that we expect out of fairytales. Maguire’s writing style has also never been entirely to my taste, although I can’t quite put a finger on what it is about it that doesn’t sit right with me.

All in all, while I appreciated Maguire’s take on the classic story, the execution didn’t quite do it for me. It wasn’t a bad read, but it also wasn’t one I ever got excited about, either. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If you like Maguire’s work, this might be worth your while, but it’s not among his best. If you’re primarily looking for fairy tale retellings, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister has an interesting premise, but there are a lot of versions of the Cinderella story out there that are more lively.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Book Room Reviews, Books I Done Read, Dogear Diary, Jo’s Bookshelf, Kay’s Bookshelf, Neth Space, Shelf Love, Trish’s Reading Nook
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Hobbling home under a mackerel sky, I came upon a group of children.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 6: “Fish laid to serry like roofing tiles, glinting in their own oils.” – to crowd closely together.
  • p. 93: ““We have a lot of plants growing under a glass roof behind the sheds, and somewhere to the south of town, a well-guarded plantation in the polderlands.”” – a low-lying tract of land enclosed by embankments known as dikes.
  • p. 141: “The predikant intones; in the wind his words are lost.” – a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church.
  • p. 272: ““Do your daughters and I qualify as spinsters, to be taken in at one of the hofjes?”” – a Dutch word for a courtyard with almshouses around it.
  • p. 340: “The orchestra lurches into a sarabande, but the Dowager Queen frowns and the first violinist cuts off the music with a chop of his hand.” – a slow, stately Spanish dance, esp. of the 17th and 18th centuries, in triple meter, derived from a vigorous castanet dance.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. July 19, 2010 7:22 am

    I have to admit, I think of Gregory Maguire as a one-hit wonder; I adore Wicked, but Mirror, Mirror just freaked me out and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is decent, but, like you say, not terribly engaging.

    • July 20, 2010 10:22 am

      Omni – I liked Mirror, Mirror well enough, but in general Maguire’s books have impressed me less than public opinion makes them out to be.

  2. July 19, 2010 9:31 am

    My sister loves Maguire’s work, but I’m not really a fan. I’ve tried two of his books and didn’t really care for them.

  3. July 19, 2010 2:46 pm

    I have yet to read any of Maguire’s books but I do own both the books you mentioned. My friend tried to read Wicked and just couldn’t get into it which put me off a little. He is an author I really hope I will love. Sorry this one didn’t work for you.

    • July 20, 2010 10:23 am

      vivienne – The first time I read Wicked, I loved it; the second time I read Wicked (I wanted to re-read before seeing the stage play), it didn’t do anything for me at all. Hopefully he works better for you!

  4. July 19, 2010 7:54 pm

    It sounds like this book was focused more on the retelling part, the theme of that, and less on making it entirely compelling. I read Wicked and liked it a lot, but haven’t read any other Macguire for a lot of the reasons that have come up here — I haven’t read fantastic reviews of any of his other books.

    • July 20, 2010 10:24 am

      Kim – I haven’t either, and yet his books seem to be everywhere! That’s a fantastic marketing job, if nothing else.

  5. Johanna permalink
    July 20, 2010 5:32 am

    Thanks for linking my review on this book. I did enjoy this only I agree with other reviewers that it is a pale comparison to Wicked.

    The retelling of Cindrella is dark (as it seems to be with most, if not, all of Maguire’s work). I’d like to read other modern versions that you say is more lively. Any suggestions? :)

    • July 20, 2010 10:26 am

      Johanna – The only one that’s coming to mind at the moment is Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, but I’m sure there are others. Anyone else have any suggestions?

  6. July 20, 2010 11:00 am

    I think this was the last Gregory Maguire book I read. I picked it up because of how much I liked Wicked too. I know I didn’t like this one as much as Wicked but I’m not sure if I hated it or not. It’s been a really, really long time since I read it.

    • July 23, 2010 9:27 am

      Ladytink – Well, apparently it wasn’t good enough or bad enough to leave a lasting impression either way. :)

  7. July 20, 2010 8:26 pm

    I actually didn’t like Wicked, and never even finished it, so I’m glad I’ve passed this one up too. Based on your review, I definitely made the right choice.

    • July 23, 2010 9:28 am

      Meghan – I think it’s near-universal that Wicked is the best Maguire gets, so if you didn’t like it, you’re probably safe skipping the rest of his stuff. Oh! Except for Leaping Beauty, which is a collection of short animal-based fairy tales for kids, and is really good.

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