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Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

Confessions of an Ugly StepsisterIf Gregory Maguire is not exactly a household name, his signature work, Wicked, certainly is known throughout the world, living an everlasting life on stages everywhere in its Tony Award-winning musical version of the same name. Published originally in 1995, Wicked was Maguire’s first adult novel after years of writing successfully for children; in the 15 years following, Maguire has continued reclaiming some of literature’s more maligned characters with depth and humanity.

In Confessions, Maguire breathes life into the two ugly stepsisters and their mother who made Cinderella’s life so miserable in the original tale. Set in bustling 17th-century Holland, the so-called ‘ugly stepsister’ Iris Fisher takes center stage. Iris is the younger of two daughters of Margarethe Fisher, a Dutch woman who flees England to her native Haarlem after her British husband is brutally murdered. Hungry and alone, the Fisher trio finally find a home with local acerbic painter Luykas Schoonmaker, better known as ‘The Master.’

Their life there doesn’t last long, as Margarethe soon finds better employment in the household of wealthy tulip merchant Cornelius van den Meer, his heiress wife, and their other-worldly beautiful daughter Clara. The two Fisher girls become Clara’s companions, and eventually her stepsisters when her mother passes away and Margarethe quickly becomes the new matron of the house. For Iris, the Master’s gruffly talented presence is never far, as her interest in art deepens and grows, encouraged by the Master’s young apprentice Caspar who sees far beyond what Iris considers her own ugly self.

Having invested heavily in tulip futures, van den Meer loses his fortune and takes to his bed in despair and shame. Margarethe must somehow fend alone now for the family, and sees the upcoming ball thrown in honor of the crumbling Dowager Queen of France and her handsome godson-prince as their final opportunity for societal redemption. Let the night of alleged magic commence …

This is not the Cinderella of your youth and certainly bears no resemblance to the mouse-and-pumpkin Disney version. Clara, especially, is nearly unrecognizable, except perhaps for her strange beauty. Iris is clearly the story’s hero; although her attempts to hide behind what she insists is her own ugliness grow tedious, she proves herself capable, talented, and a far better individual than her ever-scheming mother.

But be warned: Darker elements of murder, gruesome deaths by plague, witchcraft, kidnapping, and even possible rape populate this rather adult tale. From cut-out characters to seemingly flesh-and-blood women, Maguire’s reclamation is a new kind of eye-popping, page-turning fairy tale indeed.

Readers: Adult

Published: 1999


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