Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
by Gregory Maguire
Published by Regan Books/Harpercollins
368 pages, 1999
Cinderella by Any Other Name
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is far more than a clever retelling of Cinderella. Even if readers were somehow ignorant of the fairy tale, they would still encounter a resonant and gripping narrative, with much to say about gender politics, children's rights, the beauty of art, class bigotry and the oppression of conformity. This is the intimate and moving tale of two "ugly" sisters: Ruth, unable to speak clearly and whom everyone assumes to be stupid, and Iris, too intelligent and talented for the meager opportunities her culture and social status can offer her.
With Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Gregory Maguire's second novel, the author has accomplished a rare feat: he's written a fantasy novel with no trace of the supernatural. In reinventing and recontextualizing the well-known story of Cinderella, Maguire has created a text in which fantasy acts as a metatext: readers' knowledge and expectations of fairy godmothers, changelings and magic spells interact with the realist tale and imbue Maguire's text with metafictional resonance. The fantastic, because of what readers bring to this novel, is screamingly conspicuous in its absence -- an absence which creates a thrilling tension. Readers ask themselves: How will the Cinderella tale unfold if there is no magic? Every detail is illuminated by the focused attention generated by the impulse to solve this riddle.
The portrayal of the siblings and their mother, Margarethe, is another way in which Maguire actively involves the reader in the textual experience. It clashes with the traditional portrayal of Cinderella's "evil" stepmother and stepsisters and prompts the reader to question the unspoken assumptions of the original story: stepparents are abusive; ugly girls are evil, unworthy, and unlovable; beautiful girls are good, deserving and lovable. Maguire further depicts how, because "Cinderella" (Clara in this novel) is considered to possess extraordinary physical beauty, she is treated as an object of admiration and not expected to learn any skills or play like other children. By turning her "beauty" into a curse, he challenges the traditional fairy tale meaning of physical beauty and readers' reactions to it.
Maguire sets his revisionist Cinderella in 17th-century Holland. Clara becomes Margarethe's stepdaughter well into the novel and the circumstances surrounding the ball and the prince only take up the final hundred pages or so. The Cinderella conceit is but one aspect of this novel. Cinderella-Clara may be important to the plot, but the story is much more about the two sisters and how they must cope with the repercussions of their mother's constant, and too often ill-considered, efforts to keep them all fed in the face of constant adversity and the persistent threat of poverty and homelessness.
Maguire's fiction is preoccupied with the representation of evil and, more precisely, with the forms in which evil is presented to children. His first novel, Wicked, recast Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a fictional biography of the "Wicked" Witch of the West. Just how wicked was she? Maguire reminded readers that it was the Wizard who ordered Dorothy, a lost and scared little girl, to find and kill the Witch. According to Baum, the ugly woman was evil, although readers can find in his own text plenty of evidence to challenge his assertion, such as the Wizard's above dictate or the fact that the "Good" Witch of the North was also physically ugly (a detail changed in the 1939 MGM film, whose iconography has, in popular imagination, supplanted Baum's text). Again in Cinderella, the physically ugly women, the stepmother and her daughters, are cast as the evil the physically attractive heroine must overcome. For girls and women to not conform to outer perceptions of beauty, then, is to be evil, bad. To be good, to find love, children's tales tell their audience, a girl must be beautiful -- that is, conform to social standards of beauty. Maguire attacks these psychologically and socially debilitating mythic archetypes. In his fiction, evil is not synonymous with physical ugliness.
In Confessions there is an artist who paints "God's mistakes," but only he truly perceives their personal and often tragic beauty. His patrons are offended by his art, seeing only sin in the socially determined ugliness of his subjects, and he is accused of prurient perversity. Maguire doesn't simply reverse the cliché and facilely situate evil in physical beauty. The evil he shows is that of adults, who impose a constraining vision of beauty, who treat children and animals as property, who oppress children to feed their own vanity and pettily empower themselves.
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is a work of true beauty, phenomenal power and urgent relevance. It is compassionate, intelligent and thrilling. Despite its fairy-tale origins, it contains no overt fantasy, but it is nonetheless fantastic in every way. | February 2000
Claude Lalumière -- a freelance writer, editor and translator -- is the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop. His book reviews, essays and articles can be found on his Web site.