by Gregory Maguire
This book takes the story of Cinderella and sets it in Holland, told by one of the stepsisters. There are no mice or pumpkins, and "Cinderella" is a beautiful, intractable girl named Clara. It begins when Iris (homely but intelligent) and her sister Ruth (mentally handicapped) accompany their widowed mother to Holland as bereft strangers. They find a painter who agrees to take them in as servants. When a wealthy tulip investor commissions the artist to paint his daughter Clara, Iris' mother jumps at the chance to ingratiate herself into that household of higher social status. Iris finds herself burdened with both watching after her dull sister Ruth and being forced companion to the disagreeable Clara, her new stepsister. What she is really interested in is learning about painting, which she does from the painter's apprentice, the charming and impish Caspar.
This story was delightful. It introduced me to the tulip craze of Holland in the 1630's, which I knew little about. In some ways it's almost more historical fiction than fantasy. The characters are so realistic, with their various virtues and flaws. Even though most of the people are predominantly good or evil, kind or cruel, intelligent or dumb, nothing is that black and white. Iris' mother has got to be the most complex person of all. Everyone is trying to achieve something: Clara to be seen as something other than a beautiful face, Iris seeks self-confidence, her mother wants money's security, nobody seems to think about what Ruth wants...
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is a wonderful story full of personality contrasts, human folly, intrigue and admirable compassion. The end has satisfying curious twists. And, of course, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about painting.
Rating: 4/5 372 pages, 1999
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