They say there are two sides to every story and Gregory Maguire has made a literary career out of sharing some of those other sides to stories we know well. Turning classic fairy tales and children’s stories on their head, revealing a gritty underbelly to the romantic, optimistic versions of the tales we grew up with.
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister tells the story of Iris and Ruth, stepsisters to the beautiful, spoiled but generally good hearted Clara, aka Cinderella. While I can’t say that Ruth and Iris are heroines in this book, as honestly there is no true heroine to be found here – all of the characters have their good and bad sides, their own usually selfish motives and crosses to bear – they are presented in this story in full detail. They are fleshed out, real characters who existed before and after the brief tale of Cinderella.
And not just the three stepsisters, but the stepmother, Clara’s parents, friends, acquaintances, even the Prince is given more of a realistic back story. Maguire creates a scenario in which the basic events of Cinderella might unfold realistically and how that fairy tale version could be construed from a story that is much sadder and with no clear heroines and no one enemy (though the Stepmother definitely gives the job of Evil-Doer a fair shake!) to despise.
While there is no definitive magic happening in this story, the subject of magic flits through the book from beginning to end, but in a much darker, grittier way. The characters in this story are each haunted in one way or another, by their past, their talents, their looks whether good or bad. As young girls, Clara, Iris and Ruth seem convinced that imps, witches and other nefarious dark creatures walk among them, hide in rafters and change the course of their lives at a whim. As they get older, they begin to see that these imps are imagined manifestations for the bad things that have happened to them.
I liked all of these things about this retelling of Cinderella. I like that Maguire acknowledges the fact that Clara and her not-so-evil stepsisters each suffer and that Clara was not the sweet, innocent girl of perfection that Disney makes her out to be; each have afflictions of their own and each try to be good and kind in spite of their misfortunes in life. They don’t always succeed and they often do bad things, but usually for relatively understandable reasons.
In spite of being fascinated with the story of this book and the character development which is absolutely superb, this was not a perfect book. That gritty, descriptive language that Maguire is so well known for also comes across as a bit… tiresome. This is not a light, fluffy read (not that I really wanted it to be) and I occasionally found myself skimming through paragraphs when he went a little Nathaniel Hawthorne on me with descriptions of things which seemed wholly uninteresting and unimportant.
But at the same time, he’s painting you a picture of a story, of all the angles – all the details which you might miss if you only glance. It’s kind of the whole point. The theme of looking and seeing and knowing and understanding are crucial to this story, so I can forgive it these faults because on the whole – I think Maguire told this story exactly as he intended to with far more talent than I could give him credit for as a somewhat lazy reader.
So while I would not call myself a raving fan of all things Maguire, I was glad to have read this story which made me think, captured my imagination and even managed to pass as a good example of a coming of age story. Self confidence, overcoming great losses, motherhood, love and learning to really look at each side of a story are all themes which are excellently ruminated on in this story. Plus that creepy cat, Lusifer, is blessedly nowhere to be found in this book!