Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
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Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

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by Gregory Maguire

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In the lives of children, pumpkins can turn into coaches, mice and rats into human beings. . . . When we grow up we learn that it's far more common for human beings to turn into rats.

We all have 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

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In the lives of children, pumpkins can turn into coaches, mice and rats into human beings. . . . When we grow up we learn that it's far more common for human beings to turn into rats.

We all have 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 exquisite looks?

Set against the rich backdrop of seventeenth-century Holland, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is a novel of beauty and betrayal, illusion and understanding, reminding us that deception can be unearthed—and love unveiled—in the most unexpected of places.

Editorial Reviews

Chicago Tribune
[A] bewitching story...Confessions has its roots in a fanciful tale—the Cinderella story—but it teases out motifs deeper than the generic fall-in-love-and-marry-the-prince-happily-ever-after....Witty and wise...Adult and sophisticated, his musings on beauty, ugliness, magic, reality, and imagination explore how our past follows us always and shapes our self-perception.
Nashville Tennessean
A tale so movingly told that you will say at the end of the first reading, 'It's been a long time since I've read a book this good.' For philosophical depth and lively evocative language, few writers match Gregory Maguire.
Book Magazine
Captivating and beautifully written...Confessions is a rich canvas of colorful characters and fantastic events rendered by an artist attentive to every surface and texture.
Memphis Commercial Appeal
Lively and delicious...its language is an extraordinary blend of moving narrative and music....[Maguire's] books may be placed beside the works of Marion Zimmer Bradley, John Crowley and the late Mervyn Peake. This dark folktale, a reworking of the Cinderella fable, is as exotic a mysterious as life itself.
Boston Herald
[An] engrossing story...endearing and memorable.
Detroit Free Press
[An] arresting hybrid of mystery, fairy tale, and historical novel...Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister isn't easy to classify or forget....The characters in these ‘Confessions' might not end up happily ever after, but you won't want to miss them.
Fort Worth Morning Star-Telegram
There was a time, long ago, when Cinderella was simply a children's tale in which good triumphed over bad, pretty over ugly, pumpkins and mice over carriages and footmen....Now, the story has much more depth. Gregory Maguire has applied his devilish writing style and vivid imagination to the story of the glass slipper, and, in doing so, turned this simple tale into a Gothic saga of 17th-century Holland.
Rachel Elson

What if -- despite all you've heard to the contrary -- everything was Cinderella's fault: the ashes, the dirty clothes, the long hours toiling over a cauldron? What if the Grimm Brothers got it wrong, and Cinderella was really just a controlling, prepubescent brat? If, instead of being a tale of beauty and goodness triumphing over ugly old evil, Cinderella's story was in fact a parable of the way those possessed of physical beauty can trample on the patient, the intelligent, the good?

Gregory Maguire's new book retells Cinderella's story from the perspective of one of the stepsisters, in much the same way his first novel, Wicked, reworked The Wizard of Oz to give the witch's point of view. In Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Cinderella is a manipulative, self-pitying child who hates her new family, fears the outside world and holes up at home until a visiting French prince's search for a bride offers a chance at escape.

Clever but painfully plain Iris -- ostensibly the stepsister in question -- arrives in 17th century Haarlem during Holland's tulip mania, with her stolid, mute sister, Ruth, and their mother, Margarethe, after their father's murder sends them fleeing from their English home. The starving threesome eventually take refuge in the home of tulip importer Cornelius van den Meer; Margarethe is to work there as housekeeper while Iris serves as companion to van den Meer's lovely young daughter, Clara.

Clara, however, turns out to be petulant, ill-mannered and spoiled rotten, as well as too timid to leave her house. After van den Meer's wife dies and he marries Margarethe, Clara creates a refuge for herself in the kitchen, taking on more of the household chores. When Iris gets a chance to apprentice herself to a local artist, Clara urges her stepsister to let her take control of the girls' shared duties:

"I don't care if you're happy or not, not really. But if you're gone from the house, I'm the more secure in my kitchen. The more needed, the more private. Call me Cinderling," says Clara, standing straighter behind her mask of ashes. "Call me Ashgirl, Cinderella, I don't care. I am safe in the kitchen."

Maguire's more complicated version of the fairy tale takes its time in telling; by the time readers get to the climactic grand ball, they've gone through a surplus of set-ups and foreshadowings, metaphorical gestures and red herrings. To drive home his politically correct reversal of the Grimms' preference for earthly beauty, Maguire weighs down the text with ponderous symbolic flourishes: a town caught up in pursuit of the fragile but lovely tulips that plummets into bankruptcy; a painter whose studio, filled with radiant religious works, distracts visitors from a back room stocked with portraits of demons and imps; and a convoluted, curious tale of kidnapping and physical transformation.

Maguire's own transformative work is less successful, however. Unlike the heroine in Wicked who emerged as a far more complex and likable character than in L. Frank Baum's original, the figures in Stepsister seem simply to be different stereotypes: the outshined, smart but plain heroine; the bitter old woman clinging dearly to survival. (And, oddly, Maguire's rewrite only goes so far: Cinderella herself still gets a version of happily ever after.)

J.K. Rowling's wildly successful "Harry Potter" books prove that fairy tales can provide fine literary fodder. But Rowling surprises us with her complex personalities and fanciful story lines; Maguire's latest, on the other hand, offers only stock characters and heavy-handed devices. In the end, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is just a bit short on magic.

Michael Freeman
In the classic tale of Cinderella, we only get to hear her side of the story. But what about her rivals, those ugly stepsisters, and their proud and haughty mother? Where did they come from? How did they become so wretched? And are there costs as well as consolations for an exceptional beauty such as Cinderella? Maguire's captivating and beautifully written second novel re-envisions the familiar story through the eyes of one of the homely stepsisters, Iris, and suddenly, we see things in a whole new light. The callously ambitious stepmother is also a widow tenaciously trying to provide for her daughters. The plain, simple girls are unhappy victims of a world that values only appearance and refinement in its women. And the unparalleled beauty, Cinderella, is a tragic figure, an object of great desire but of little sympathy or tolerance.

Set in the seventeenth-century Holland of Hals and Rembrandt and sporting a subplot about an aging, iconoclastic painter, Confessions is a rich canvas of colorful characters and fantastic events rendered by an artist attentive to every surface and texture.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The inspired concept of Maguire's praised debut, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, was not a fluke. Here he presents an equally beguiling reconstruction of the Cinderella story, set in the 17th century, in which the protagonist is not the beautiful princess-to-be but her plain stepsister. Iris Fisher is an intelligent young woman struggling with poverty and plain looks. She, her mother, Margarethe, and her retarded sister, Ruth, flee their English country village in the wake of her father's violent death, hoping to find welcome in Margarethe's native Holland. But the practical Dutch are fighting the plague and have no sympathy for the needy family. Finally, a portrait painter agrees to hire them as servants, specifying that Iris will be his model. Iris is heartbroken the first time she sees her likeness on canvas, but she begins to understand the function of art. She gains a wider vision of the world when a wealthy merchant named van den Meer becomes the artist's patron, and employs the Fishers to deal with his demanding wife and beautiful but difficult daughter, Clara. Margarethe eventually marries van den Meer, making Clara Iris's stepsister. As her family's hardships ease, Iris begins to long for things inappropriate for a homely girl of her station, like love and beautiful objects. She finds solace and identity as she begins to study painting. Maguire's sophisticated storytelling refreshingly reimagines age-old themes and folklore-familiar characters. Shrewd, pushy, desperate Margarethe is one of his best creations, while his prose is an inventive blend of historically accurate but zesty dialogue and lyrical passages about saving power of art. The narrative is both "magical," as in fairy tales, and anchored in the reality of the 17th century, an astute balance of the ideal and sordid sides of human nature in a vision that fantasy lovers will find hard to resist. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Maguire sets his novel-length retelling of "Cinderella" in 17th-century Holland, during the "tulip madness" that swept the country. Indeed, the tulip bulb is a recurring image and metaphor: a strange, ugly, bumpy thing capable of producing great beauty. The ugly stepsisters in this tale are Iris and Ruth, who have fled England with their mother, Margarethe, escaping the mob that killed their father. They are plain at best, and Ruth is physically and mentally handicapped, a condition that seems to inspire more derision than compassion from the people of Haarlem. Originally from Haarlem, Margarethe finds no shelter there since her family is long dead, but she bullies her way first into the household of a painter, Master Schoonmaker, and later into that of a tulip merchant and his lovely, reclusive daughter Clara. The narrative is enthralling, an original story that uses the folktale root as an accent that shapes but does not define the story. The characters are vividly drawn; the handful of woodcut-like illustrations by Bill Sanderson accent the story without intruding on the reader's imagination. Maguire's novel is one of the best and more sophisticated retellings around. Fans of mythic fiction will especially enjoy it. KLIATT Codes: SA*—Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1999, HarperCollins/Regan, 372p, illus, 24cm, $15.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Donna L. Scanlon; Children's Libn., Lancaster Area Lib., Lancaster, PA, March 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 2)
Library Journal
After years of writing quality fantasy for children, Maguire published his first adult novel, Wicked, to literary acclaim. His new novel is even more accomplished, setting the Cinderella story in 17th-century Holland and making it a narrative of domestic upheavals and artistic challenges. The tale begins with the arrival of a recent widow from England, returned to her native Haarlem with her apparently retarded older daughter and a younger one who is unattractive but sharp and quickly develops an interest in painting. The three become housekeepers to the family of a tulip merchant; when his wife dies, leaving his own young daughter motherless, merchant and widow marry, and their daughters become stepsisters. Maguire places the reader wholly within his story's milieu, evoking the smells, the sights, and the superstitions of the time while deftly capturing his characters' personalities. The plot cannot be intended to surprise, but the sophisticated retelling gives the reader new insights into the truths about human motivations within relationships. For literary collections, including those for older teens.--Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley P.L., CA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A revisionist view of Cinderella's adoptive family dominates this brilliantly plotted fantasy from Maguire, a popular children's book author whose first adult novel, Wicked (1995), offered a similar reimagining of the land of Oz. The time is the 17th century, the place Holland. And the story begins when Dutch-born Margarethe Fisher brings her daughters from their native England to the thriving city of Haarlem, where a kindly grandfather's home promises safe haven. But Grandfather has died; preadolescent Iris (who narrates) is too plain to marry, and elder sister Ruth is an ungainly simpleton scarcely able to speak. A beautiful "changeling" child seen through a window confers a kind of blessing on the astonished Ruth, and the resourceful Margarethe quickly restores their fortunes, installing them as house servants to portrait painter Luykas Schoonmaker ("The Master") and later marrying Luykas's widowed and wealthy patron, importer Cornelius van den Meer (whose willful, strangely reclusive daughter Clara is that very "changeling"). As Margarethe seizes ever greater riches and power, Iris begins to blossom into a confident young woman whose artist's eye earns her the respect of both the Master and his handsome apprentice Caspar, becoming a handmaiden-mentor whom the highborn beauty Clara eventually accepts as a sister. Maguire's patient re-creation of the world of the Dutch burghers builds a solid realistic base from which the novel soars into beguiling fantasy when its links with the familiar Cinderella story become explicit. The visiting Dowager Queen of France arrives in Haarlem seeking a worthy portraitist. A lavish ball, Clara's enchantment of a Handsome Prince, a climactic fire, anda wonderfully ironic surprise ending all figure prominently in the superbly woven climax and denouement. A ravishing meditation on the truism that "beauty helps preserve the spirit of mankind." Maguire is rapidly becoming one of contemporary fiction's most assured myth-makers.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

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The wind being fierce and the tides unobliging, the ship from Harwich has a slow time of it. Timbers creak, sails snap as the vessel lurches up the brown river to the quay. It arrives later than expected, the bright finish to a cloudy afternoon. The travelers clamber out, eager for water to freshen their mouths. Among them are a strict-stemmed woman and two daughters.

The woman is bad-tempered because she's terrified. The last of her coin has gone to pay the passage. For two days, only the charity of fellow travelers has kept her and her girls from hunger. If you can call it charity -- a hard crust of bread, a rind of old cheese to gnaw. And then brought back up as gorge, thanks to the heaving sea. The mother has had to turn her face from it. Shame has a dreadful smell.

So mother and daughters stumble, taking a moment to find their footing on the quay. The sun rolls westward, the light falls lengthwise, the foreigners step into their shadows. The street is splotched with puddles from an earlier cloudburst.

The younger girl leads the older one. They are timid and eager. Are they stepping into a country of tales, wonders the younger girl. Is this new land a place where magic really happens? Not in cloaks of darkness as in England, but in light of day? How is this new world complected?

"Don't gawk, Iris. Don't lose yourself in fancy. And keep up," says the woman. "It won't do to arrive at Grandfather's house after dark. He might bar himself against robbers and rogues, not daring to open the doors and shutters till morning. Ruth, move your lazy limbs for once. Grandfather's house is beyond the marketplace, that much Iremember being told. We'll get nearer, we'll ask."

"Mama, Ruth is tired," says the younger daughter, "she hasn't eaten much nor slept well. We're coming as fast as we can.

"Don't apologize, it wastes your breath. just mend your ways and watch your tongue," says the mother. "Do you think I don't have enough on my mind?"

" Yes, of course," agrees the younger daughter, by rote, "it's just that Ruth-"

"You're always gnawing the same bone. Let Ruth speak for herself if she wants to complain."

But Ruth won't speak for herself. So they move up the street, along a shallow incline, between step-gabled brick houses. The small windowpanes, still unshuttered at this hour, pick up a late-afternoon shine. The stoops are scrubbed, the streets swept of manure and leaves and dirt. A smell of afternoon baking lifts from hidden kitchen yards. It awakens both hunger and hope. "Pies grow on their roofs in this town," the mother says. "That'll mean a welcome for us at Grandfather's. Surely. Surely. Now is the market this way? -- for beyond that we'll find his house -- or that way?"

"Oh, the market," says a croaky old dame, half hidden in the gloom of a doorway, "what you can buy there, and what you can sell!" The younger daughter screws herself around: Is this the voice of a wise woman, a fairy crone to help them?

"Tell me the way," says the mother, peering.

"You tell your own way," says the dame, and disappears. Nothing there but the shadow of her voice.

"Stingy with directions? Then stingy with charity too?" The mother squares her shoulders. "There's a church steeple. The market must be nearby. Come."

At the end of a lane the marketplace opens before them. The stalls are nested on the edges of a broad square, a church looming over one end and a government house opposite. Houses of prosperous people, shoulder to shoulder. All the buildings stand up straight-not like the slumped timberframed cottage back in England, back home ...

-- the cottage now abandoned ... abandoned in a storm of poundings at the shutters, of shouts: "A knife to your throat! You'll swallow my sharp blade. Open up!". . . Abandoned, as mother and daughters scrambled through a side window, a cudgel splintering the very door --

Screeeee -- an airborne alarm. Seagulls make arabesques near the front of the church, being kept from the fish tables by a couple of tired, zealous dogs. The public space is cold from the ocean wind, but it is lit rosy and golden, from sun on brick and stone. Anything might happen here, thinks the younger girl. Anything! Even, maybe, something good.

The market: near the end of its day. Smelling of tired vegetables, strong fish, smoking embers, earth on the roots of parsnips and cabbages. The habit of hunger is a hard one to master. The girls gasp. They are ravenous.

Fish laid to serry like roofing tiles, glinting in their own oils. Gourds and marrows. Apples, golden, red, green. Tumbles of grapes, some already jellying in their split skins. Cheeses coated with bone-hard wax, or caught in webbing and dripping whitely-cats sprawl beneath like Ottoman pashas, open-mouthed. "Oh," says the younger sister when the older one has stopped to gape at the abundance. "Mama, a throwaway scrap for us! There must be."

The mother's face draws even more closed than usual. I won't have us seen to be begging on our first afternoon here," she hisses. "Iris, don' t show such hunger in your eyes. Your greed betrays you."

"We haven't eaten a real pasty since England, Mama! When are we going to eat again? Ever?"

"We saw few gestures of charity for us there, and I won't ask for charity here," says the mother. "We are gone from England, Iris, escaped with our lives. You're hungry? Eat the air, drink the light. Food will follow. Hold your chin high and keep your pride."

But Iris's hunger -- a new one for her-is for the look of things as much as for the taste of them. Ever since the sudden flight from England ...

Confessions Of An Ugly Stepsister. Copyright © by Gregory Maguire. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Meet the Author

Gregory Maguire is the author of several best-selling adult novels, including Wicked, which was turned into a Broadway musical. His books for younger readers include the picture book Crabby Cratchitt, the novel The Good Liar, and the popular Hamlet Chronicles series. While writing Leaping Beauty, Mr. Maguire sadly became allergic to all creatures great and small. Now he lives in a house without pets, though he is the father of three happy, noisy small children to whom, at this writing, he has not yet developed allergies.

Brief Biography

Boston, Massachusetts
Date of Birth:
June 9, 1954
Place of Birth:
Albany, New York
B.A., SUNY at Albany, 1976; M.A., Simmons College, 1978; Ph.D., Tufts University, 1990

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