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Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
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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

E-book extras: "Cinderilla or, The Little Glass Slipper" (read the original version of the classic fairy tale); reading group guide.

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?

Is this new land a place where magics really happen?

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.

Customer Reviews:

  • A new voice ...
    Gregory Maguire has made "backstory" big business -- you know the history of an old beloved tale told with new information, usually providing a new view of the characters, or a view from a new perspective as childhood -- as he did in "Wicked." I read "Confessions..." several years after I read "Wicked" and was misdirected because I did not realize that he suited the tone of the book (also highly experimental) to the tone of the environment. After reading another of his books, I realized the cold tone and sparse dialogue, were indicative of the coldness of the story as well a the climatic surroundings in a northern European country. Having used this technique myself in one of my favorite ever writing classes, I also have a greater appreciation of what Maguire does so very well. He recycles literature -- old favorite tales in such a contemporary and clever way that it is difficult to put down. His writing is rich, colorful and very satisfying....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
  • The book was good
    The book was good. It's exactly what I had anticipated and if you've read his other books than you will be satisfied. ...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
  • 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
  • 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
  • i love it even after the third time reading it
    i cannot recommend this book highly enough. a great adult fairy tale, it leaves you wanting more the whole way through-and the twists!

    you have got to read it for yourself.

    i cannot wait for him to write my next favorite book!...more info
  • good car listening
    I got this book on CD and listen to it while driving.Was OK for driving ...I guess.But oh my God! this Clara is a disater of a "good, kind " Cinderella that we all know.The thing is I felt the dark and cold days of Holland , the boring long winter that droves people inward...
    Unfortunately the most important branch of the story was not developed - the paintings, colors, their efect on people's lifes and why we love them so much.Too bad.
    I found ending the most interesting part.
    The book should not be read but listen to it when driving long distances Ha Ha Ha...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
  • 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
    I bought this book last year from Amazon, and I just finished reading it. It's great, I love the illustrations, and the storyline is great. It's not just about Cinderella but it is also about her parents, step=mother,two ugly step-sisters, and the painter. I'm glad that Mr. Maguire told their side of the story as well, and not just Cinderella. I really enjoyed this book, and it kept me enthralled. It's a great all-around fairy tale from an adults point of view. This book rocks. I can't wait to read Lost, Wicked, and Mirror Mirror. I can't wait until I receive Son of a Witch. I just couldn't put this one down....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
  • a different twist
    This is a good book. I love Gregory Maguire, because he takes the well known fairytales and tells them from a different point of view of a character from that tale. This is one of the "ugly" stepsisters story of Cinderella. It was very good, for me it was a surprise to learn which sister is telling the story. Different events happened in this story than in the traditional story that would have made a big difference in the story that we all grew up on....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
  • 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
  • Another amazing novel
    I read "Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister" shortly after finishing "Wicked." I was originally hoping for another cleverly constructed fairy world, and was at first disappointed when I read on the back of the book that it is set in 17th-century Holland. Luckily, my fears were not justified. The characters and setting of "Confessions" are just as amazingly complex, multi-faceted, easy to relate to, and believable as "Wicked." What most strikes me about Maguire's works is that he begins with an opening setting that has nothing whatsoever to do with the story he is reinterpreting and develops that world into a rich, detailed setting for the story with parallels that the reader never saw coming. I was awed by "Wicked," and equally so by "Confessions." The characters in "Confessions" are equally wonderful. When taken at face value, they are just as stereotypical as their Cinderella counterparts, but when considered with regard to what else is revealed about them throughout the novel, they are as realistic as any friend or aquaintance. I remain impressed by Maguire....more info
  • Ponderous and dull
    The concept behind this novel has promise--a historical retelling of Cinderella from the stepsister's point of view. The execution leaves a lot to be desired. Simply put, not a lot happens, and there isn't enough plot to hold the novel up. The author tries to make up for this by padding it out with long-winded descriptive paragraphs and meandering inner monologues which ultimately don't add anything to the story. The whole subplot about Iris learning to be a painter ultimately goes nowhere and has nothing to do with the main plot, leaving me to wonder why it was included. The plot (what little their is) is predictable without any surprising twists.

    Well, there's a bit of a twist at the very end (SPOILER ALERT) when we learn that Ruth, not Iris, is the narrator in the first and last chapter. But ultimately, this doesn't make much sense, since the entire story is a flashback told from Iris's point of view. Actually, the narrative bits at the beginning and end could easily have been left out.

    The novel wasn't terrible. Iris is a sympathetic and three-dimensional character, and I was interested in what happened to her, which was mainly what kept me reading. Ruth and Clara (Cinderella) are also sympathetic in their own way, and they all have their own handicaps to overcome; Ruth is mute, and Clara is sheltered and fragile, seeming mildly autistic at times. I was glad Maguire chose to make Clara a three-dimensional character as well, rather than having her be just a nasty spoiled brat.

    All in all, though, this was a disappointing effort. This may be the last Maguire book I read, as Son of a Witch was also disappointing and dull, and from what I hear, his other books suffer from the same flaws....more info
  • Even better than Wicked
    I loved Wicked, but I loved this one even more. Every new book from Gregory Maguire just gets more fun. Maybe I'm alone in this, but I really didn't see the end coming. ...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
  • 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
  • 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
  • Great retelling.
    Very good book. We get to see the other point of view. The historical aspect is very interesting. ...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
  • a mixed bag...fails to be truly engaging
    There were so many things i liked about this book, but I can't give it an entirely positive review. Maguire is extremely gifted in imagery and characterization. At times the presentation of contrasts beauty/ugliness, kindess/cruely, love/hate- were all way too obvious- themes are best discoveded subtlely not shoved down our throats.

    The plot was not lacking, and the characters were well-rounded and complex--even thoughs we think to be simple change our minds. BUT the difficulty I have is that he only touched on the relationships between these wonderful characters, which is what would have kept me engaged. For instance...there is nothing much said of how van der Meer feels as his household is does he feel about iris? he isn't just a rock without feelings.. and couldn't more have been done to show the complexities in the relationship of Iris and Caspar? of Iris and Clara? of Iris and Ruth? of Iris and her mother? Where he shoved the themes down our throats he did little in the way of interactions. that is often the most rewarding part of novels, and it is what makes us feel.

    This book certainly has its merits but I was left much discontented at the closing. ...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
  • 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