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Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister: A Novel
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Product Description

Is this new land a place where magics really happen?

From Gregory Maguire, the acclaimed author of Wicked, comes his much-anticipated second novel, a brilliant and provocative retelling of the timeless Cinderella tale.

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....

We all have heard the story of Cinderella, the beautiful child cast out to slave among the ashes.But what of her stepsisters, the homely pair exiled into ignominy by the fame of their lovely sibling? What fate befell those untouched by beauty . . . and what curses accompanied Cinderella's exquisite looks?

Extreme beauty is an affliction

Set against the rich backdrop of seventeenth-century Holland, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister tells the story of Iris, an unlikely heroine who finds herself swept from the lowly streets of Haarlem to a strange world of wealth, artifice, and ambition. Iris's path quickly becomes intertwined with that of Clara, the mysterious and unnaturally beautiful girl destined to become her sister.

Clara was the prettiest child, but was her life the prettiest tale?

While Clara retreats to the cinders of the family hearth, burning all memories of her past, Iris seeks out the shadowy secrets of her new household--and the treacherous truth of her former life.

God and Satan snarling at each other like dogs.... Imps and fairy godmotbers trying to undo each other's work. How we try to pin the world between opposite extremes!

Far more than a mere fairy-tale, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is a novel of beauty and betrayal, illusion and understanding, reminding us that deception can be unearthed--and love unveiled--in the most unexpected of places.

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

Customer Reviews:

  • Same Shtick, Different Fairy Tale
    *Two and a Half Stars*

    Having already read Gregory Maguire's 'Wicked' I was something less than thrilled when I got roped into reading 'Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister' for a decidedly informal book discussion group. It wasn't that I found 'Wicked' a bad read, I actually rather enjoyed it, but the blurb on the back of 'Confessions' lead me to think that Mr. Maguire had essentially repeated the same formula with a different fairy tale. (Actually, 'Wicked' was written after 'Confessions' but I read 'Wicked first...) Deconstructing a fairy tale and retelling it from the point of view of what is traditionally an unsympathetic character looses its novelty quickly.

    Anybody who has read 'Wicked' will instantly feel right at home. Mr. Maguire provides interesting characters and plots that keep a reader interested. That said, I found the writing itself in 'Wicked' to be better than the writing in 'Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister.' The retelling of Cinderella felt less developed and 'Confessions' world, 17th Century Holland, seems less vivid than Maguires reimagining of Oz.

    With the novelty of retooled fairy tales gone, 'Confessions' ended up being a bit underwhelming. While the opening scenes were engrossing, the middle of the book was merely ok and the climactic scene, Cinderella at the ball, ended up feeling slow and flat. The post script seems like an afterthought.

    Mr. Maguire has turned his shtick into a cottage industry, which is fine. It's a decent shtick. But unless you're interested in going through a post-modern reinvention of every single one of Grimm's Fairy Tales, read 'Wicked.' The concept is the same and the writing and the plot are better....more info
  • So so
    This book wasn't a book that I would normally read, and it was okay. I thought it would be more of a humerous book than what it was. The middle of the book was kind of slow going and was wondering when it would start to pick up, but towards the end the book got better. It made me want to watch the movie Cinderella again. I haven't seen it in years....more info
  • disappointed somewhat
    I've read Wicked first and perhaps that was where the mistake lies. Wicked was so well written that after reading such a great novel, Confessions was somewhat of a disappointment. It's not a bad novel but the character development was just par and the storyline seemed a bit forced. I would love to recommend Wicked though for those who might be interested. I even bought the soundtrack from the Broadway show!...more info
  • Dragging
    I felt the whole story was dragging and slow paced. The concepts in the story are nothing new. The writing is mediocre....more info
  • Maguire has done it again
    His wonderful novels have yet to disappoint. He is so descriptive and clear, I find myself drawn into his worlds completely. I have read 4 or 5 of his novels now and every time I have thoroughly enjoyed his twisted take on a familiar back story. Keep 'em coming!...more info
  • The "True" story of Cindarella
    Confessions is another in the series of books that Gregory Maguire writes where he takes a well known story and twists it around. This time, he takes on the story of Cindarella. We all know about the ugly stepsisters, the evil mother-in-law, the glass slipper and all the magical mice of Disney fame. What the author does here is add more to the story and twist it around in terms of its viewpoints and explains "what really happened".

    I liked this story much more than I liked "Wicked" (His rendition of The Wizard of Oz) because he twists the storyline into a believable context. For one, he takes out all the magical elements - so, if you are looking for the Fairy Godmother, the mice, the pumpkin, and so on, you will not find them. Instead, he places the story in the context the Netherlands at the time of Rembrandt and the Tulip Bulb Bubble. The stepsisters and the mother in law are real people - they are a dutch family that had emigrated to England but come back home when the English husband dies. They are poor and destitute and searching for any assistance. The mother works as a housekeeper for a painter who tries to rival Rembrandt in his efforts. For one particular commission, the painter decides to paint one of the ugly sisters as a counterpoint to the beautiful tulips that are all the rage at that time.

    The story is told from the viewpoint of this sister. She tells the story of the family as it escaped from England and settles in the Dutch town. She tells how her mother begs for work and how they get ensconced in the painter's household.

    The painting is a success and actually leads to the family moving from the painter's house to the house of the wealthy merchant who commissioned it. This family has the wealthy wife who runs the household who gets pregnant and needs help as well as a mysterious teenaged daughter who is beautiful beyond belief but who refuses to set foot outside of the house. The three young girls get to know each other and play with each other including some trips outside the walls of the house during which we find out that there is some terrible reason why Clara (the beautiful one) does not leave the house.

    Then, one day, something goes terribly wrong with the matron's pregnancy and both she and the baby die. This is not unusual in those days, nor is it unusual that soon thereafter the merchant marries the mother of the two sisters. So, now the family situation we now is set up. So, what makes the father disappear?

    Mr. Maguire's answer is to have the merchant speculating on Tulip bulbs at exactly the wrong time and end up losing all of his fortune - throwing the merchant into a deep depression which has him locking himself up in a bedroom, mostly comatose.

    As the house is slowly denuded of all of its possessions to pay off the creditors, the dowager Queen of France comes to town and announces that she would like a ball to introduce the local young women to a young male relative of hers. Of course the whole town is thrown into a tizzy and everyone who has eligible young women in their households are competing to go. This household, with three eligible women, is definitely invited and they all make plans to go - although Clara is very reluctant. Ultimately, the sister who is telling the story manages to convince her beautiful step-sister to come to the ball by setting up an elaborate scheme that will make sure no one recognizes her involving a separate coach ride, and an outfit that is borrowed but including white slippers made from silk so that, in the right light, they look like they are made of glass (another element explained).

    The night of the ball comes, all the young women are paraded in front of the young man, and the sister telling the story manages to hold his attention for a few minutes due to her smarts and ability to converse in English as well as Dutch. Then, in comes Cindarella - I mean Clara and takes over. She is the most beautiful of the young women there by a large margin and immediately captivates the prince. She and the prince repair to a private room and are not seen again while the ball continues. One thing leads to another and a fire breaks out which has everyone scurrying out of the mansion and into the countryside. The girls reconvene at their home in the morning after having walked back from the mansion to discover that one of Clara's slippers is missing.

    The prince comes looking for the young woman who lost the slipper and discovers Cindarella, takes her off to marry, and they live happily ever after. Right?

    Well, almost. There is a final chapter in the book which is written by the other sister. The one who was considered dumb throughout the whole book. This chapter ties all the loose ends together and tells the end of the story. It talks about all three sister's lives and early deaths and their family situations. It clears up any remaining mysteries and puts a final twist into the story in the way in which this silent sister saw the things that went on.

    By telling the story in this way, and tying it so carefully to plausible events, this book is a great read. The reader can clearly see how the fairy tale elements could come together from a story that is really the lives of some common people. The magic is in the way it is perceived rather than the way people really behaved. That is another aspect of what makes this book such a great read - it is a plausible story that is believable. There is only one element that I was unhappy with - the mother's role as an evil person is unduly enlarged when she reveals some of her misdeeds to her daughter. There was really no point in adding this plot device as without it we simply have a very determined woman trying to make her way in the world while supporting her daughters. Adding criminal elements to the mother's actions makes them more bizarre than is warranted.

    So, I recommend you read this book and enjoy it as I did. It is a fun retelling of the story of Cindarella that twists it into a view of what life might have been like in 17th century Holland!
    ...more info
  • It Fits
    Having read Gregory Maguire's 'Wicked' and 'Son of a Witch', I was curious to see what else Maguire had out there, and picked up Confessions. I'm surprised to say how much I enjoyed Confessions, but perhaps its a result of the fact that it's such a different book than the two formerly mentioned. The challenge with Maguire is he writes in a very highbrow, tongue-in-cheek manner that can turn off a lot of readers that are expecting a frothy tale, especially after checking out the musical version of 'Wicked'. In comparison, Confessions is a fair bit easier to read, partially because it isn't so deeply steeped in the Oz-verse that Maguire meticulously creates. Instead of having to explain away every little detail, Confessions focuses more on character development and moral complexities that make for an enchanting yet deep novel.

    The story is this - Iris, her older 'ox-like' sister Ruth, and her shrewd mother Margarethe are in Renaissance-era Holland begging for the basics that will keep them safe, warm, and fed. After a stint working in a local artist's studio, the gang ends up working for tulip merchant Cornelius van den Meer and his wealthy wife Henrika, with Iris keeping their petulant yet pretty child Clara company. When Henrika dies in childbirth, Margarethe is poised to lead the family - although strife is rampant in the town they're living in. Margarethe sees a saving grace for everyone when a Queen of France comes to town with her godson looking for a wife - and the rest as they say, is history (of sorts).

    What's great about this story is the Cinderella story, no matter what retelling you're most familiar with (I've read/watched about 25 of them), is flexible enough that Maguire can really play with it and stretch the details to fit the moral questions he wants the reader to ask. Is beauty more desirable than cleverness and charm? At what price does happiness come? Can you be comfortable without a touch of maliciousness? How strong are the bonds of family over love? Despite the context of the story, Maguire refuses to wrap things up Happily Ever After, leaving you to question the resolutions for each character and how fitting they are.

    Overall I'd say this is a good book. If you've tried to pick up a Maguire book before and found it too dense, Confessions is a lot lighter, although by no means a piece of fluff - it's just easier to read. The characters and the situations they find themselves in are interesting and developed, and the story itself is reframed in a very 21st-century way, despite the era its from. ...more info
  • Not What I had hoped for
    This book is well-written. It is a thoughtful re-telling of the old fairy tale, against a real historical background of Holland during the 17th Century Tulip Madness time. The historical details are right.
    What I was expecting was light, enchanting reading. What I got was a very dark, serious novel. I much liked Rosalind Laker's Golden Tulip as a great novel of this same time period, but I know Laker's Style and was not expecting a "fairy tale".

    I had not previously read any of Maguire's books, so didn't realize his style was so dark. I had read Mercedes Lackey's Fairy Godmother was expecting something in the same vein. Maguire is more realistic and that was not what I needed to read at this time.

    So - great book - but not to my taste.

    ...more info
  • Great retelling.
    Very good book. We get to see the other point of view. The historical aspect is very interesting. ...more info
  • entertaining
    When I read Wicked, I changed my mind about the classic good guy bad buy image in books/movies. This was no different. It was delightful to discover the 'evil step sisters' were not that bad at all... that Cinderella was not as she appears in the classic Disney movie is refreshing. I enjoyed this book from page one....more info
  • Wasted My Money
    The title was the best part of this book. Not worth purchasing - if you MUST read it check it out from the library or borrow it. Don't ask me for it - mine is headed for Goodwill because I can not stand to burn or trash a book. It was awful and vulgar. Very disappointed. I hope someone else writes the book to fit the title. Unfortunately I bought two books by the author and was disappointed with BOTH!...more info
  • Great book!
    I got this book by Bookcrossing, it was fab and I loved the twist ending. My first name is Ruth by the way....more info
  • The ugly stepsister isn't so ugly after all...
    I'm glad I chose to read this book during my flight yesterday. It's one of those books that once you get into the first few chapters, you can't really put it down for a long period of time.

    Highlights: It's engaging, funny, and you really get attached to the main character. There's even a cute little love story in there (only marred by my anxiety that "cinderella" would steal the guy away with her looks.)

    Downsides: The ending was disappointing. It isn't told by Iris, who we get to know really well and have invested so much time in. I don't want a quick summary on what happened to Iris! The other main characters in the book aren't fleshed out very well, such as the father.

    Overall: Good read with likeable characters, you won't regret spending a day on this book. ...more info
  • Masterpiece
    It is a rare and wonerful thing when a novel is utterly faultless. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is deeply poetic and moving. Oddly enough this story weaves together themes as dark as insanity, obesstion, lust, death and overwelming vainity but what makes it a modern masterpeice is that it speaks more of life than darkness....more info
  • And they lived happily ever after...or did they?
    There is little constructive information I can add to the abundance of reviews, other than this: I gave the book only four stars because of a personal bias. What can I say, you can't mess with the classic Cinderella tale. I don't know what I was thinking when I picked up this book! :) The characters in "Confessions" are presented very realistically, with a lot of grey areas in which the reader can decide if they are "good" or "bad". In other words, the book makes you look at what makes people tick. That's good, right? And yet my corny sentimentality leaves me wishing for the fairy tale ending. I'm doing no justice to the author...sorry, Mr. Maguire!...more info
  • Maguire has done it again
    His wonderful novels have yet to disappoint. He is so descriptive and clear, I find myself drawn into his worlds completely. I have read 4 or 5 of his novels now and every time I have thoroughly enjoyed his twisted take on a familiar back story. Keep 'em coming!...more info
  • Very dark retelling.
    This was a great book. That said, I absolutely hated it. It's strange, being able to recognize that something is very good but still to hate it. I feel the same way about Steinbeck and the movie 21 Grams.

    The characters were vivid and deep and interesting, which is greatly important to me. The story was very dark, and I guess I may need to consider the possibility that such a dark story is simply not to my taste. I found this book to be one of the most draining I've ever read, with Wicked still up there as number one. I still have Mirror Mirror on my shelf waiting to be read, because I keep thinking that as talented as this author is, maybe I'll like other pieces of his work, but isn't the definition of insanity to do the same thing repeatedly and expect a different result? Maybe I'll give that other book to a friend....more info
  • Reinvigorated and Reimagined Retelling of the Old Archetypal Tale
    "Or is this clot of dark in Caspar's sketch, in a window even higher up, the last square of glass under the roof beam, actually a squinting, hunched creature of some sort? Is it just scrawled darkness, scribbled in, or can she make out tiny leering features?
    "Have you drawn an imp in this house?" says Iris, looking up.
    "I didn't know you could see it too," he says, but then will say no more." (page 104, @1999 ReganBooks)

    Sometimes superstition is the best descriptor of reality. Margarethe, a woman whose cunning is better suited to adversity than to affluence, arrives in Holland a widow and refugee from England with her two unprepossessing daughters, restless questioning Iris and ponderous deformed Ruth. Chance or fate secures Margarethe a position as housekeeper to up and coming painter Master Schoonmaker. Thankful to secure food and lodging the trio is unaware that their fates are not yet sealed and further adventure awaits. As a respite from his religious subjects Master Schoomaker paints a striking portrait of plain Iris as the quintessential peasant girl, a painting so compelling that it attracts the reluctant admiration of Haarlem elite businessman Cornelius van den Meer whose attentions to both painter and subject catapult this family of misfits into circumstances far more fantastic than fairy tale.

    Iris, the primary storyteller, is hounded by a sense of portent which she initially believes to be an actual imp living in the uppermost portion of the van den Meer home. "The high narrow place is haunted somehow, something fierce and potent, something gifted at disguise...Whatever it is - imp or else-thing - it's deft. It eludes her." (page 110) What really hounds Iris and her family? Is it a supernatural sprite bent on her unhappiness, the all to corporeal consequences of common human greed and pride, or is it her own duplicitious heart?

    As much a coming of age story as spin off novel we grow to like Iris more and more as she grows from late girlhood into early womanhood with all of its misunderstandings and nascent desires. Expecting a lighthearted satirical farce of stock characters I was completely taken in and delighted by Maquire's imaginings. So much tangier than their Disney counterparts, each character is seasoned with both what is lovable and despicable; sometimes in full possession of the truth, sometimes blind to what is in front of their nose; sometimes planning the ultimate scheme that comes to wonderful fruition, sometimes their machinations go spinning off into faraway unimagined consequences. Is it their own shortsightedness, or is it the imp in the attic secretly bent on their destruction? Is myth derived from reality, or does myth influence the mundane through the magic of its own artistry? Read and explore that magical territory in this reinvigorated and reimagined retelling of the old archetypal tale.

    ...more info
  • Cinderella stripped of the myth
    I really enjoyed this book. Although, I also liked Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, the first of Gregory Maguire's books, this was my favourite.
    Confessions is set in 17th century Holland, the premise is that this is the true version, as told by an "Ugly Stepsister" before the story was retold and retold and eventually turning into the Fairy tale it is today.
    An interesting take on Cinderella, with good value as a historcal fiction also.
    ...more info
  • Great Rainy Day Read
    This book is a very quick read. Although it get predictable towards the end, you can not help but enjoy this page turner. Not only is Maguire brilliant at his fresh spin on a classic fairy tale but he stays true to the landscape of his setting (in this case Holland) and brings up topics that you rarely find in pre-20th centry novel settings such as homosexuality and a girl's first period. All in all this was an enjoyable read. ...more info
  • Great book
    This is an excellent read. The story is very well told. Part fairy tale, part mystery, part romance, it has a little bit for everyone. The twist in the the epilogue through me for a loop and was completely unexpected....more info
  • Awesome
    I love Gregory Maguire's books. He takes great fairy tales and shows you a side you never thought about before. You will never see the fairy tales you once knew the same way again....more info
  • Unimaginable
    this book was fantastic. I was expecting there to be a lot of magic use, and an obvious relation to cinderella, but its way better. The book shows that there are always more than two sides to a story, since everyone has a different out look....more info
  • Interesting, but definately NOT intriguing
    Iris is plain, and her sister Ruth looks like an ox and is mentally handicapped in some way never fully explained. When their father is murdered, they flee England with their mother Margarethe and go to Holland, the land of their mother's birth. They search out her grandfather only to find that he died years ago. Now, destitute and starving, Margarethe goes house to house pleading for charity until she is let in the house of a painter where they are given food and shelter in exchange for domestic labor. Soon, Margarethe finds employment in the home of a wealthy merchant. Iris' job is to befriend the merchant's daughter Clara and teach her English. When Clara's mother dies, Margarethe seizes opportunity and marries the merchant and slowly takes control of the home and wealth.

    This book was interesting--a classic fairytale told from another point of view in a different setting. However, it just took SO long to get to anything intriguing....and when it did (in the last few chapters) it glossed over things and left so many things unanswered. We're just supposed to guess and make our own assumptions. Yikes. Did van Stolk kidnap Clara when she was young? What did happen behind those closed doors between Clara and the Prince? Was Clara's mother murdered? Was Iris' father murdered or did Margarethe leave him?

    One reason Cinderella is remembered is because of the love and relationship of Cinderella and Prince Charming. Here, it's just kinda gross actually. The Prince comes off as a rapist. Not only that, but Clara our "Cinderella" makes such a HUGE jump in character not once, but several times, that the story just falls flat. One minute, she's a young woman who act like a child throwing tantrums to get her way, even sucking her thumb in front of her dad's colleagues. She acts high-and-mighty and refuses to lift a finger around the house. Then instantaneously she would rather stay in the kitchen and cook and clean all day, sleeping by the kitchen fire. What?@!? Why does she want to do that? Who knows!

    It took me over 2 weeks to read this book. Not a good sign. It was a good idea that was poorly executed. It was like knowing that the best party is going on, and all you can see is glimpses of the outside of the house. The whole story just dances around the story and never getting to what Cinderella is about. I just felt like I was reading about someone's normal, humdrum, day-to-day life. Not too exciting. Also, I just couldn't seem to care about any of the characters. So, why 3 stars? I didn't hate it, but I highly doubt I will ever pick it up again....more info
  • Solid
    I didn't like this book as much as Wicked, and it was painfully slow at the start, but it wound up being a very enjoyable read....more info
  • Another Hit!
    I did love "Confessions of an Ugly Step-Sister". The story was told well, and there was more closure to this story than there was to "Wicked" (not as many unanswered questions).
    However, I have noticed a trend with ALL Maguire books and that is the painfully slow beginings. It took me several days to get through the first 80 pages, and I nearly put the book down and gave up. HOwever, around page 80 or so, I was unable to put the book down and read it in 2 days. I also felt "Wicked" was slow to start for the first 50 pages or so, and then -the same thing the story took off and I read it in a day or 2.
    The beginings of Maguire's books are necessary because he gives you so much background information right off the bat. It is just hard to read. But I assure you - get yourself through the begining and you will be happy you did!
    Also, if you're expecting the Disney Fairytale stay away from this book. It is Pleasantly unlike any Cinderella tale I have ever read! ...more info
  • Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
    This book is fantastic. I loved it, and the inside look on the stepsisters. We all know that everyone has feelings, and their own side of things, and this story demonstraits perfectly how even the ugly stepsister dosen't have to be evil, even the beautiful daughter can be a brat, and how things never turn out how you expect. Even the ugly step sister deserves her happy ending....more info