October 05, 2011
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire
Margarethe and her two daughters have escaped from England, where the locals were wanting to kill them. Originally of Dutch descendants they thought they could find a home with relatives still in the city. However, upon arriving they learn that all of their relatives are dead.
They are taken in by an artist who the mother cleans for, her daughter Iris poses for, and her other daughter Ruth (thought to be challenged mentally) picks flowers for. It is during this time that the artist paints a picture of Iris and some regular wild flowers that entrances a local man Van den Meer to bring them into his household as a playmate for his daughter Clara. Clara is an exceptional beauty and the complete polar opposite of Iris. Iris is clever, but extremely plain to look at.
Through a series of misfortunes the wife of Van den Meer dies in childbirth and through some manipulations Margarethe becomes married to him. Not holding to the usual Cinderella story, Clara chooses that fate on her own, wishing to disappear into the kitchen and be left alone with her chores.
During this time the family's fortune is made on the Tulip Craze that was sweeping through the area at the time. It is merely coincidence but I had just finished reading "Tulipomania" which is a non-fiction book a week ago and was amazed at how much I recalled from that novel that was in this one. Maguire did his homework well. Unfortunately, for anyone familiar with the craze, it quickly plummeted and many lost their fortunes, much like the Van Den Meer family.
Desperate, Margarethe tries everything to restore their fortunes while losing her eyesight at the same time. When the coming of a Prince is announced she sets up her biological daughters to be present at this meeting while Iris secretly plots to get Clara there. The goal is for Clara, the beauty, to catch the eye of the prince and be free from everyone.
The characters in this story are well written. I felt great compassion for most of them and Iris especially gained a place in my heart. She had her flaws but did her best to overcome them and do what was right for others, even at her own expense. Ruth, while somewhat of a surprise at the end, even in her simplicity added a lot to the book and was an important character. Clara we are able to see grow throughout the novel and while she may not be the most pleasing character at the beginning, she is one of the most well-rounded ones at the end.
Maguire's writing is very descriptive. However, he does tend to go off topic sometimes or for the sake of effect through in crude scenes and ideas. In this particular novel I wasn't fond of the fact he decided to add what we can only presumably call a rape into one of the scenes. It didn't really add much to the story and just played into sensationalism, which is what makes his other novels distasteful to me.
Overall though, I'd say that this book was wonderfully done and offers a great insight into the other side of the story. It is also placed in a well thought out setting as the entire story seems plausible enough to happen. Much better than anything else he's written in my opinion.
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
368 pages and a Reader's Group Guide