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Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister: A Novel Paperback – October 3, 2000

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Editorial Reviews Review

Gregory Maguire's chilling, wonderful retelling of Cinderella is a study in contrasts. Love and hate, beauty and ugliness, cruelty and charity--each idea is stripped of its ethical trappings, smashed up against its opposite number, and laid bare for our examination. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister begins in 17th-century Holland, where the two Fisher sisters and their mother have fled to escape a hostile England. Maguire's characters are at once more human and more fanciful than their fairy-tale originals. Plain but smart Iris and her sister, Ruth, a hulking simpleton, are dazed and terrified as their mother, Margarethe, urges them into the strange Dutch streets. Within days, purposeful Margarethe has secured the family a place in the home of an aspiring painter, where for a short time, they find happiness.

But this is Cinderella, after all, and tragedy is inevitable. When a wealthy tulip speculator commissions the painter to capture his blindingly lovely daughter, Clara, on canvas, Margarethe jumps at the chance to better their lot. "Give me room to cast my eel spear, and let follow what may," she crows, and the Fisher family abandons the artist for the upper-crust Van den Meers.

When Van den Meer's wife dies during childbirth, the stage is set for Margarethe to take over the household and for Clara to adopt the role of "Cinderling" in order to survive. What follows is a changeling adventure, and of course a ball, a handsome prince, a lost slipper, and what might even be a fairy godmother. In a single magic night, the exquisite and the ugly swirl around in a heated mix:

Everything about this moment hovers, trembles, all their sweet, unreasonable hopes on view before anything has had the chance to go wrong. A stepsister spins on black and white tiles, in glass slippers and a gold gown, and two stepsisters watch with unrelieved admiration. The light pours in, strengthening in its golden hue as the sun sinks and the evening approaches. Clara is as otherworldly as the Donkeywoman, the Girl-Boy. Extreme beauty is an affliction...
But beyond these familiar elements, Maguire's second novel becomes something else altogether--a morality play, a psychological study, a feminist manifesto, or perhaps a plain explanation of what it is to be human. Villains turn out to be heroes, and heroes disappoint. The story's narrator wryly observes, "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." --Therese Littleton --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers 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 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks; 1st Pbk. Ed edition (October 3, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060987529
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060987527
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (398 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #34,033 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Gregory Maguire received his Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Tufts University, and his B.A. from the State University of New York at Albany. He was a professor and co-director at the Simmons College Center for the Study of Children's Literature from 1979-1985. In 1987 he co-founded Children's Literature New England. He still serves as co-director of CLNE, although that organization has announced its intention to close after its 2006 institute.
The bestselling author of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Lost, Mirror Mirror, and the Wicked Years, a series that includes Wicked, Son of a Witch, and A Lion Among Men. Wicked, now a beloved classic, is the basis for the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical of the same name. Maguire has lectured on art, literature, and culture both at home and abroad.
He has three adopted children and is married to painter Andy Newman. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

135 of 146 people found the following review helpful By Pretty Sinister on December 6, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Just when you think there have been too many re-imagined versions of well-known fairy tales along comes one that brilliantly reinvents perhaps the archetype of all fairy tales. Maguire, who previously wrote a subversively political tale about the wicked witch of the west, surpasses his debut novel with this compassionate tale of beauty and familial duty. Once again his richly detailed prose captures that feeling of a once upon a time that true fairy tales require and does so without ever appearing artificial. This story of Iris and Ruth, their complex mother Margarethe, and their stepsister Clara of the 'afflicted eternal beauty' is filled with wonderfully shaded characterizations that never fall into that good/evil dichotomy that Grimm and Perault use in telling the original versions. Can kindness reside within ugliness? Is beauty and attractiveness really something to be envious of? Is a mother's apparent tyrannical household an environment that will produce wickedness? Is a nearly mute sibling nothing more than a drudge to babysit? Find the answers to these not so simple questions within Maguire's excellent story and be prepared to be reassess your own prejudices about the 'ugly' and the 'beuatiful.'
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76 of 80 people found the following review helpful By Jibia on June 22, 2000
Format: Hardcover
When I first read "Wicked", the first adult novel written by Gregory Maguire, I was spellbound. I went out and recommended it to all my friends. So one can imagine my thrill when I went on-line and discovered that the author of my favorite book had written a second. This book was, of course, "Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister". I didn't sit down intending to simply read it, I engulfed it, and I was very pleased to find that what Maguire did in "Wicked" was not a one-time only occurance. Needless to say, it's a very enjoyable book. It takes a classic story that everyone knows, and tells the side of the story that people don't know, the side of the so-called 'villan'. Like "Wicked", you get wrapped up in the story and the characters. Unlike "Wicked", it's a light read, no politics, no tremendous notions, just deep thought on basic human concepts. And, despite the familiarity of the story Cinderella, there is little predictability in the novel; every page is a new discovery and a new surprise. All in all, and excellent book with something for everyone, and as such, a great read.
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on August 16, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Having grown up on and loved various versions of the classic Cinderella story, I was immediately drawn to this book because of the new perspective it offered on the tale -- the mysterious viewpoint of the "ugly stepsister." However, Maguire's excellent take on Cinderella does more than just reveal the heretofore unseen stepsisters and their complex histories and personalities. Framed by the familiar fairy-tale details, "Confessions" is a thoughtful, sometimes gruesome, very beautiful meditation on a host of timeless issues: social class, human psychology, artistic talent, the role of women, family love, and the nature of beauty.
By setting his revised Cinderella tale in the context of seventeenth-century Dutch merchant-class society, Maguire gives his story foundations of history and art, lending rich flavor to his sparingly elegant prose, and giving additional depth to his unusual cast of characters. The stepsisters (smart but plain Iris and her simpleton sister Ruth) and Clara, the lovely and haunted "Cinderling," are especially well drawn, in all their various idiosyncrasies; and the extraordinary love and conflict between them is the most outstanding of the strong threads carrying the story.
In short, Maguire has expertly boiled this classic fairy tale down to its essence, then rewoven it into something fantastic, strange, and unforgettable.
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82 of 93 people found the following review helpful By Sheryl A. Lemma on February 16, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The readers of this book, that is. Gregory McGuire has hit another one out of the park with "Confessions." Following up on "Wicked," the first of McGuire's expanded fairy tales, "Confessions ..." tells the story behind the story of Cinderella.
Childhood fairy tales, true to their intended audiences, tell stories of black and white, good and evil. Once we all grow up, though, we realize that the world is many shades of gray. McGuire's stories reflect that adult knowledge. That is why this story is so fun to read. I voraciously read fairy tales as a child, and McGuire has allowed me to revisit the stories of my childhood while entrancing me as an adult. His are quick reads, which is somewhat disappointing, because the end always comes too soon.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough, and I will be waiting for my 'prince in shining armor' to write me another grown-up tale!
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Edward Aycock on November 30, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Just to quickly correct a review written below, there is a character in this novel who is "assumed" to be the lover of the Master, but it turns out that it is just a spiteful lie. He is not gay after all.
That said, I would highly recommend this book. Maguire is an intensely gifted writer (I remember realizing that Wicked is not a book to be read lightly, rather, a book that could be taught to a college class.) This book is a surprisingly fast read... once you get into it, it's hard to put it down. Maguire's style in this story is a gritty, no frills true story of the Cinderella. One actually does not miss the lack of mice, and pumpkins, and fairy godmothers as the real story is so enticing. Plus.. the ending packs a wallop that you don't expect. The historical background involving the tulip trade and the changing society of the Netherlands is interesting, but also integral to the tale. After you read this, you'll have an entirely new perspective on the fairy story on which it is based. I gave it only 4 stars because of a personal bias that I could have used a few more explanations, and the ending seemed rushed, but otehrwise, this is a great tale.
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