Iris is famous but no one knows her name. She is better known as the ugly stepsister. After the death of her father, Iris moves to Holland with her mother and sister, Ruth. Struggling to survive in a new country, Iris and her family eventually find a place to stay with a wealthy merchant. He has a wife and a daughter that is known for her beauty, Clara--the girl that is better known as Cinderella. The world is familiar with Clara's tale but is there any truth to it? How did a girl from Haarlem become a princess? With the help of a fairy Godmother? Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister tries to set the record straight and tell what really happened that night at the ball.
Gregory Maguire is known for reimagining classic tales and giving them a more adult twist. He is well known for his novel, Wicked--which has had a very successful run through the novel's musical interpretation on Broadway. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister has a brilliant concept but the story only has echos of the Cinderella tale that most of us grew up on. To be honest, it would be difficult to know that Confessions was based on Cinderella without the title and the backcover proclaiming it to be a reimagined fairy-tale. It can more accurately be described as a historical fiction novel about a young girl growing up in 17th century Holland. There is more talk about tulips in this novel than that of princes, balls, glass slippers, and magic combined.
Most of the story takes place long before the famous ball comes into play. Maguire spends most of the novel focusing on the three girls as children--which isn't as interesting as it would seem. Maguire is a talented writer. His writing is easy and engaging but he spends almost too much time focusing on points that don't propell the story forward. It makes the tale feel stagnant and muddy. And although Iris is the observant child and her tale is supposed to add more insight and depth to the fairy-tale we all know and love, I found this novel underwhelming. Maguire brought nothing to the fairy-tale that elevated the story. Clara--the Cinderella of our tale--seemed distant and removed. It would have been more interesting if Iris had gotten to know Clara more. What was Clara thinking when she became the "cindergirl"? How did Clara deal with the loss of her mother? What happened with Prince Charming in that room at the ball?
All these questions lay unanswered but Maguire spent pages upon pages writing about the tulip economic crash in the 17th century. It seemed as if he were more interested in that historical event and the fairy-tale influence was added later to sell more copies. Maguire changed the protaganist of the tale and that was his first mistake. Clara was the more interesting and complex character. Her background was mysterious and her motives were unpredictable. Iris was bland--watching from the sidelines more often than actively particpating in the plot. Even Ruth would have made for a more interesting protaganist!
Maguire attempted to give an old classic new life but instead, he made Cinderella into a tale about four unlikable women and two unlikable men--Caspar gets a pass because he is the true prince charming in this tale. Cinderella is bright and happy but this tale is rather depressing. It isn't a happily-ever-after ending but neither is it very an inspirational or literary. It tries to be everything at once and in the end fails to be anything at all--well, other than bland and long.