Book Reviews

December 10, 1999:

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

by Gregory Maguire

Regan Books, 368 pp., $24

Following in the steps of his first novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, Maguire continues to plumb his promising literary vein with this retelling of the classic Cinderella story. He dissects our preoccupation with physical beauty and its virtuous connotations by taking the well-known fairy tale, standing it on its head, and turning out its pockets. The Truth Behind Appearances, Young Love, and The Value of Artistic Representation all assert and justify themselves like amiably complicated characters through Maguire's deceptively contemporary storyline and his devastating use of the third person omniscient.

Set in 17th-century Holland, Confessions is the story of Margarethe Fisher, her two daughters Iris ("plain as a board") and Ruth ("ungainly and unattractive, a gibbering and stammering" mess), and of Clara (our lovely Cinderella) and the man who paints her (The Master). Tragedy lands Margarethe and her daughters homeless in Holland, but a series of opportunistic finaglings soon finds the family merged with that of Clara's, though still threatened by poverty. Margarethe espies a final opportunity at the upcoming ball and plies the dashingly mundane Prince with the temptation of her "best" daughter. The plan goes wildly astray yet achieves a measure of unpredictable success, and Clara emerges an unlikely Cinderella, armed with a self-awareness and the cachet of intrigue that only a beauty such as hers could possibly have afforded.

The children who populate Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, delicately poised between their animal and mystical natures, constantly invoke the magic of fairy tales. Yet for all the youngsters' talk of imps and changeling conspiracies, the plot is marked by a conspicuous absence of anything so fantastic. As the young females each graduate into maturity, the debilitating fog of magical superstition is lifted. Iris can finally face the circumstances of her father's "death," Clara begins to accept her condition of acute beauty, even the unfortunate Ruth moves on to something else.

Maguire's heartfelt narrative elicits erratic senses of allegiance until a nice twist brings everything stunningly home. Perhaps the book's most succinct judgment of art stands as an apt reflection on the book itself: "This is what art does, confuses the senses so to magnify the appreciation of the heart."

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