Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

by Gregory Maguire


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Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061960550
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/28/2010
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 782,272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Gregory Maguire is the bestselling author of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister; Lost; Mirror, Mirror; and the Wicked Years series, including Wicked, Son of a Witch, and A Lion Among Men. Wicked, now a beloved classic, is the basis for the blockbuster Tony Award-winning Broadway musical of the same name. Maguire has lectured on art, literature, and culture both at home and abroad. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.


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

Read an Excerpt


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.

Table of Contents

Prologue Stories Painted on Porcelain xiii
The Obscure Child
Stories Told Through Windows
Sitting for Schoonmaker
Girl with Wildflowers
Half a Door
Van Den Meer's Household
The IMP-Riddled House
The Small Room of Outside
Small Oils
The Masterpiece
Rue, Sage, Thyme, and Temper
The Girl of Ashes
Flowers for the Dead
Plague and Luarantine
The Nowbere Windmill
A Fair Light on a Full Table
Wind and Tide
The Girl of Ashes
Spine and Chamber
The Gallery of God's Mistakes
The Gallery of God's Mistakes
Van Stolk and van Antum
The Night before the Ball
The Changeling
Small Magic
Tulip and Turnips
The Ball
The Medici Ball
Clarissa of Aragon
A Most Unholy Night
The Second Slipper
Epilogue Stories Written in Oils 360

Reading Group Guide


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 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"?

  • Customer Reviews

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    Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 321 reviews.
    TICNC More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    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!
    TalieTurner More than 1 year ago
    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.
    ionestjames More than 1 year ago
    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.
    forever_dreamer More than 1 year ago
    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.
    PatchyLevi More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I could not put this book down! Great character and plot development.Riveting from beginning to end.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I usually love any story that is a twist on a fairy tale, but this one didn't have a lot of action and was really slow going. I'm glad I finally finished it, but I had week long breaks in between reading sessions because it just didn't keep me on the edge of my seat. Definitely a different take on the classic tale, a bit depressing overall, but an okay read.
    Avid_ReaderWP More than 1 year ago
    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!
    EdnaMole More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Loved this book!
    EDNurseDee More than 1 year ago
    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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    becsan More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    NellyDT More than 1 year ago
    not as good as the wicked sires but still very good
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    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
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Couldn't put the book down, so good. Great twist on the classic! Definitely going to read more from the author.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Good spin on a old story
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    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.