Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

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Overview

Is this new land a place where magics really happen?

From Gregory Maguire, the acclaimed author of Wicked, comes his much-anticipated second novel, a brilliant and provocative retelling of the timeless Cinderella tale.

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 ...

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Overview

Is this new land a place where magics really happen?

From Gregory Maguire, the acclaimed author of Wicked, comes his much-anticipated second novel, a brilliant and provocative retelling of the timeless Cinderella tale.

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?

Extreme beauty is an affliction

Set against the rich 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.

Clara was the prettiest child, but was her life the prettiest tale?

While Clara retreats to the cinders of the family hearth, burning all memories of her past, Iris seeks out the shadowy secrets of her new household—and the treacherous truth of her former life.

God and Satan snarling at each other like dogs.... Imps and fairy godmotbers trying to undo each other's work. How we try to pin the world between opposite extremes!

Far more than a mere fairy-tale, Confessions of an UglyStepsister 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.

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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 vision...as 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.
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 vision...as 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.
Salon

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.
KLIATT
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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060987527
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/28/2000
  • Edition description: 1 PBK ED
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 111,640
  • Lexile: 860L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.96 (d)

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.

Biography

Raised in a family of writers (his father was a journalist and his stepmother a poet), Gregory Maguire grew up with a great love of books, especially fairy tales and fantasy fiction. He composed his own stories from an early age and released his first book for children, The Lightning Time, in 1978, just two years after graduating from the State University of New York at Albany.

Several other children's book followed, but major recognition eluded Maguire. Then, in 1995, he published his first adult novel. A bold, revisionist view of Frank L. Baum's classic Oz stories, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West places one of literature's most reviled characters at the center of a dark dystopian fantasy and raises provocative questions about the very nature of good and evil. Purists criticized Maguire for tampering with a beloved juvenile classic, but the book received generally good reviews (John Updike, writing in The New Yorker, proclaimed it "an amazing novel.") and the enthusiasm of readers catapulted it to the top of the bestseller charts. (Maguire's currency increased even further when the book was turned into the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Wicked in 2003.)

In the wake of his breakthrough novel, Maguire has made something of a specialty out of turning classic children's tales on their heads. He retold the legends of Cinderella and Snow White in Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (1999) and Mirror, Mirror (2003); he raised the ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge in Lost (2001); and, in 2005, he returned to Oz for Son of a Witch, the long-awaited sequel to Wicked. He has reviewed fantasy fiction for the Sunday New York Times Book Review and has contributed his own articles, essays, and stories to publications like Ploughshares, The Boston Review, the Christian Science Monitor, and The Horn Book Magazine.

In addition, Maguire has never lost his interest in -- or enthusiasm for -- children's literature. He is the author of The Hamlet Chronicles, a bestselling seven-book series of high-camp mystery-adventures with silly count-down titles like Seven Spiders Spinning and Three Rotten Eggs. He has taught at the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College and is a founding member of Children's Literature New England (CLNE), a nonprofit organization that focuses attention on the significance of literature in the lives of children.

Good To Know

In our interview, Maguire shared some fun facts with us about his life:

"While I pride myself on trying to be creative in all areas of my life, I have occasionally gone overboard, like the time I decided to bring to a party a salad that I constructed, on a huge rattan platter, to look like a miniature scale model of the Gardens of Babylon. I built terraces with chunks of Monterey jack, had a forest of broccoli florets and a lagoon of Seven Seas salad dressing spooned into a half a honeydew melon. I made reed patches out of scallion tips and walkways out of sesame seeds lined with raisin borders. Driving to the party, I had to brake to avoid a taxi, and by the time the police flagged me down for poor driving skills I was nearly weeping. ‘But Officer, I have a quickly decomposing Hanging Gardens of Babylon to deliver....' Everything had slopped and fallen over and it looked like a tray of vegetable garbage."

"My first job was scooping ice cream at Friendly's in Albany, New York. I hated the work, most of my colleagues, and the uniform, and I more or less lost my taste for ice cream permanently."

"If I hadn't been a writer, I would have tried to be one of the following: An artist (watercolors), a singer/songwriter like Paul Simon (taller but not very much more), an architect (domestic), a teacher. Actually, in one way or another I have done all of the above, but learned pretty quickly that my skills needed more honing for me to charge for my services, and I'd always rather write fiction than hone skills."

"I steal a bit from one of my favorite writers to say, simply, that I enjoy, most of all, old friends and new places. I love to travel. Having small children at home now impedes my efforts a great deal, but I have managed in my time to get to Asia, Africa, most of Europe, and Central America. My wish list of places not yet visited includes India, Denmark, Brazil, and New Zealand, and my wish for friends not yet made includes, in a sense, readers who are about to discover my work, either now or even when I'm no longer among the living. In a sense, in anticipation, I value those friends in a special way."

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

Read an Excerpt

Marketplace

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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Reading Group Guide

SummaryWe 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 exquisite looks? Set against the rich 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. Far more than a mere fairy-tale, Confessions 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. Questions for Discussion
  • While versions of the Cinderella story go back at least a thousand years, most Americans are familiar with the tale of the glass slippers, the pumpkin coach, and the fairy godmother. In what ways does Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister contain the magical echo of this tale, and in what ways does it embrace the traditions of a straight historical novel?
  • Confessions is, in part, about the difficulty and the value of seeing-seeing paintings, seeing beauty, seeing the truth. Each character in Confessions has blinkers or blinders on about one thing or another. What do the characters overlook, in themselves and in one another?
  • Discuss the role of artistic representation inConfessions. Consider the two portraits the Master paints. What do they say about each other, and about art? What does the Master purport to want to capture in his paintings, and why?
  • Gregory Maguire posits four types of beauty in the novel: that of physical human grace and perfection, that of flower blossoms, that of art, and that of the gesture of charity. Is it possible to make a statement about the relative values of beauty? How is each type of beauty represented in the story?
  • Is Clara's extreme beauty really an affliction, as Iris suggests, making her just another addition to the Gallery of God's Mistakes? Do you think her beauty is a curse or a blessing?
  • Iris is possessed by visions of imps and hobgoblins -- her imagination transforms a crone into the Queen of the Hairy-Chinned Gypsies, a windmill into a ferocious giant, and smoke on the horizon into a dragon's breath. Why do you think she sees the world this way? Ultimately, is there an imp in the van den Meer house?
  • The early seventeenth century was a time in which the Dutch, it is said, invented the idea of the "comfortable home." How does the van den Meer home reflect the family within? What elements in Confessions rely on the need to keep up appearances?
  • How does the story of van den Meer's rising and falling fortunes in the tulip market relate to Clara's tale? What lessons does it offer us today?
  • Clara is preoccupied with the idea that she may be a changeling. Why does she think, even hope, that she is one? In the end, how might we redefine the term "changeling" with Clara in mind?
  • In considering Marie de Medici's scheme to marry off her godson, Margarethe professes an admiration for the Dowager Queen, saying, "Why shouldn't she arrange the world to suit herself? Wouldn't we all, if we could?" [page 243). Discuss the ways that Margarethe arranges the world to suit herself. What does her favorite saying, "Give me room to cast my eel spear, and let follow what may," tell us about her?
  • When Iris asks the crone about casting a magic spell on someone, the crone replies, "It's your own job to change yourself" (page 164). Transformation is one of the main themes of "Cinderella," and of Confessions. Discuss the ways in which the characters are transformed or transform themselves over the course of the novel. What's the value and/or the cost of transformation for each?
  • On page 65, Margarethe tells Iris, "women must collaborate or perish." Does Margarethe really believe this statement? In what ways do women collaborate or fail to collaborate in the story?
  • The novel begins and ends with the issue of charity -- Margarethe's request for charity in a strange town and Clara's act of charity toward her stepmother and stepsisters. Discuss how these scenes frame the story. At the ball, the Master says, "perhaps charity is the kind of beauty that we comprehend the best because we miss it the most" (page 313). What does this mean to you?
  • How has the book changed your conception of the Cinderella story? The notion of "happily ever after"?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 320 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(133)

4 Star

(101)

3 Star

(56)

2 Star

(20)

1 Star

(10)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 322 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 9, 2010

    Keep reading, it gets better

    I struggled with this book in the first couple of chapters and wanted to stop reading it but knew I had paid the money for it. I am SO glad I kept reading. Maguire created a very unique way of retelling an old story with a modern day twist. If you liked "Wicked" I think you will like this one as well.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2008

    New Fan of Maguire's

    i really enjoyed this book. i did see that other reviewers thought it dragged on, but i disagree. it was difficult to put down for me. i read it a steady pace and finished it in about a weekend. this book was almost enchanting. when i put it down to go to bed... i still thought of it while lying down. its almost like it haunted my thoughts! this book was beautifully written. it allows you to get to know the characters and decide on your own who you like and dislike. the end almost had sort of a twist which was pleasing to me. i did not feel as though there were any unanswered or untouched topics. i highly reccommend this book to anyone who liked wicked. i actually think i enjoyed it a little more than wicked!

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 15, 2008

    I Also Recommend:

    An Amazing Novel

    This is one of my favorite books of all time! Maguire's boldness in "re-telling" fairy tales is, simply put, exquisite. Raising two daughters, I have to admit that I get tired of sugar-coated Disney tales, so knowing that I can turn to a darker, grown-up fairy tale world when my gals are in bed makes endless viewings of Cinderella palatable. Let go your old ideas and allow Maguire's words sweep you into a place where princes are not always charming, stepmothers have more driving them than jealousy and beauty is a curse.

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 29, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    If you expect a juicy fictional entertaining tell-all about Cinderella from the mouth of an ugly stepsister (or both) ...don't pick this up!

    When I got this book I was honestly expecting a fictional tell all book with one or both of the stepsisters telling us about their life with Cinderella(when they met, after the ball and she marries the prince and everything in-between) without leaving out any juicy details about any arguments or even times when they all got along and etc. Due to the expectations that I had, I was pretty disappointed when I started reading(I really should've stopped and read it for a bit but I was in a hurry!).

    The story was instead told in third person and was VERY slow, seeming to drone on and on about the person Iris, her mother, and sister stay with for awile and his paintings, Iris learning to paint, and the tulip trade until things picked up in the middle. The ending could've had slower pacing as well. Some of the characters (ex. Iris, Ruth, even Clara when we first meet her) were dull and didn't help with the slow pacing. I don't really even think this story had a specific plot at all at least I didn't get what the plot was.

    I did like how the author made the story realistic and gave us his own vision of how Cinderella and the stepsisters met and got along. I also liked that we met the stepsisters and Cinderella's (or Cinder girl's parents)

    I give it three stars just for it being a sort of retelling of the Cinderella story and for it's realistic nature (I also couldn't help but find it sort of interesting at times) but it really just reads like a novel that takes place in the 1600s so unless you are interested in stories about random characters (not fairy tale characters just normal people) that take place in the 1600s and talk about the tulip trade and stuff of that nature, don't pick this up.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 22, 2011

    Great Interpretation

    I have read and seen many different interpretations of the story of Cinderella and her ugly stepsisters. This book, by far, is my favourite of all of them. Nothing can beat the original, but this comes in at a close second. Gregory Maguire is a master at taking beloved children's tales and turning them completely on their heads, making them great reads for adults and teens alike.

    Set in Haarlem, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, takes a tale of magic and wonder and turns into a story that could have happened. Every aspect of this story seems plausible, from the plague, the tulip crash, and Marie de Medici's reasons for hosting a ball in Haarlem. Even the characters seem more believable. There is no Fairy Godmother, there is no pumpkin carriage and mice turned into horses and coachmen. The magic in this story comes from Iris and Ruth, the two stepsister who try and help their stepsister get out of the house and live her life.

    I also loved this story because it gave a background on the stepmother and stepsisters that Disney and the Grimm Brothers never provided us. We learn why the "evil" stepmother treated her daughters cruelly, why she married Cinderella's father, and why she didn't want Cinderella to go to the ball. We even get a look at Cinderella's mother, who in most of the tales is already dead. I can guarantee that this story will surprise you and will definitely change your view of the "evil" stepmother and the "ugly" stepsisters. As I continued to read on, I came to like and pity Iris and Ruth and at points I even started to hate Clara (Cinderella). The roles of the characters in this book make for a much more interesting read than any of the other stories. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone. It is even safe enough to read to your children before bed. I think Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister has a lot more to teach our children than the original story ever did.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2006

    Incredible!

    I could not put this book down! Great character and plot development.Riveting from beginning to end.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2012

    Love it beginning to end!

    Loved this book! Characters were deep and dynamic. Would definitely reccomend.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 20, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Don't Miss This Book!

    I recommend everything Gregory Maguire has written. In fact, get his books on tape and listen to them while you commute or are on a long road trip. This is the last of what he has written that I read and I was not disappointed. Gregory turns commonly known Fairy Tales and children's stories on their head. In this book, he has retold the Cinderella story but put it in a historical context of Holland during the tulip crisis (a historical fact). He has twisted the common understanding and gives the reader a completely new take on the Cinderella tale! You will either love or hate Maguire's writings. I happen to love them and find myself rereading them because the reader can never capture all the tiny details in only one reading. This is a keeper!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 20, 2010

    A morsel of lesser read Maguire work.

    This book absolutely stunned me. I started reading it after reading "Wicked", and "Son of a Witch" and was left wondering why those books made it so heavily into the mainstream while this book, far better in my opinion, remained a bit in the shadows.
    I am consistently suprised by the development of each character in Maguire's writings. The further I read, the greater I feel for a person, sympathizing with their pain, pleasure, or feeling disgust when a person is genuinely ugly.
    I have read hundreds upon hundreds of books and Gregory Maguire has become a favorite author without doubt. He pulls the reader into a story where today's problems and situations are but an undertone. The man takes fairy tale to an entirely new and captivating level.
    I would reccomend this book to anyone who is over the age of 12 or 13, not because of content, but because it may take a reader that old to comprehend the vastness of emotion and complexity of human relations included in the book.
    Gregory Maguire has gotten me hooked, and I cant wait to read more of his writings. My only disclaimer: if you read one of this artist's books, more will surely follow. Let the cinder girl and her family whisk you away, and before you know it, witches and flying monkeys may be taking you on other journeys as well.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 18, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    This is an engrossing tale that I will recommend to friends

    I enjoyed 'Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister' very much. Although it is loosely based on the Cinderella story, it is told from the Ugly Stepsister's point of view (she is not the evil sibling that we have come to despise). Unlike 'Wicked,' this novel did not have any fantasy/un-human characters although you expected one to pop out at any moment (the house imp). I especially enjoyed the infusion of Dutch art into the story and the 'gallery of God's mistakes.' Gregory Maguire's writing style is quite unique yet also easy enough to read. This was a highly enjoyable novel and a surprisingly fast read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 31, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    A fun read!

    This book is a great read for anyone who grew up on the Cinderella fairy tale and wants to know "the rest of the story" - or for anyone who appreciates the fact that there are indeed at least two sides to every story. Gregory Maguire is a great story teller. Once I started reading this I had trouble putting it down. This is the first thing I've read by him, and based on this book, I can't wait to read his other stuff.

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  • Posted March 4, 2013

    I really enjoyed this book. I read Wicked first and enjoyed tha

    I really enjoyed this book. I read Wicked first and enjoyed that as well. But this book was easier to read and kept me interested without as much effort. Iris is a fantastic character, very relatable, strong, and flawed. And I was rooting for her the entire book. I loved watching Margarethe turn into the "evil" stepmother and seeing Cinderella from a different point of view. My only complaint was the end was slightly anti-climatic. But overall, was a good book that I would definitely recommend.

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  • Posted February 18, 2013

    not as good as the wicked sires but still very good

    not as good as the wicked sires but still very good

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2013

    Maguire has an amazing was or retelling classic stories in a way

    Maguire has an amazing was or retelling classic stories in a way that they seem to fit seamlessly into the stories that you know and love

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2013

    Good read

    Couldn't put the book down, so good. Great twist on the classic! Definitely going to read more from the author.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 16, 2012

    Goodd Good

    Good spin on a old story

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2012

    Indeed

    I love the thought of the other side of the story. This one isn't fantasy, but takes on a very realistic role in cinderella. Well written, and fantasic to read.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2012

    I really expected to love this book. I adored Wicked and Son of

    I really expected to love this book. I adored Wicked and Son of a Witch, and I thought that surely this book would live up to the wonder these books left me with. But that is not the case. I love fairy tales, and I love the retellings and other party perspectives even more, but this book was, in one word, boring. I was so excited for it, and I finished it in two days, but I found myself skipping entire pages as they droned on and on about the tulip trade and paintings. I gave the book two stars because the idea behind the book is good. I really like the story itself, the way the author reimagined the series of events that make up the Cinderella story, but the presentation did nothing for me. nothering

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2012

    What i love about this book

    1. The main character is not a supermodel- iris's own mother calls her ugly 2. There is no sequel! Im getting really tired of reading a book just to find that it is part of an unfinished trilogy. 3. Its original. I mean, it is the cinderella story but there is so much more to it than that. 4. The ending! It was really unpredictable, unfotgettable, and just plain awesome.

    This is an excellent book for any gregory maguire or fairy tale fans, or anyone just looking for a well-written, amazing book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 21, 2012

    Beuhf

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    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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