Monday, 15 February 2010
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is a version of the Cinderella story. Sort of. But it's firmly grounded in the real world, thus has no magical fairy godmothers, spells or transformation of animals or garden vegetables. There is however a ball, a prince and almost a happy ending. It also tells the story from the point of view of the stepsisters focusing mainly on how they come to be in the situation in the first place. Set in seventeenth century Holland, a large portion of the story bears no real resemblance to the Cinderella story as we know it, as it is concerned with materialistic, uncaring Margerethe, mute, plodding Ruth and bright but plain Iris.
Margerethe, Ruth and Iris end up in Holland after fleeing England for their lives. Attempting to secure a position for themselves, they end up being taken in by a lesser dutch painter, who agrees bed and board for their housekeeping skills, and to be allowed to paint Iris. This he duly does, although Iris is less than pleased with the finished result, as what he actually does is use her plainness to accentuate the beauty of the tulips he paints her with. However, his painting does bring him to the attention of the Van De Meer family, who commission him to paint their supremely beautiful, but sheltered daughter Clara. Margerethe, jumping on the slightest opportunity, wangles her way into this household, and Van De Meer's bed when his wife dies in childbirth.
This is the point when parallels can start to be seen with the story this takes its inspiration from. But it really is only inspiration. Lots of events are seen from a different perspective. The stepsister's relationship to each other is developed in a much more complex way, particularly Iris and Clara. Ruth seems to play an insignificant part in the story as she can't speak. Margerethe all through is portrayed as the evil stepmother, plotting and scheming for her own ends, and constantly trying to improve her own position in life. Clara, seen as insignificant by Margerethe, chooses her own sheltered life in the ashes of the kitchen hearth, and more importantly, her own name. After the death of her mother she retreats there herself, determined to hide her beauty. The painting of her is used by her father to further his business concerns, and her beauty is known far and wide. She however feels that she will never be known for who she is, rather than just her incredible beauty and chooses her own life in the ashes. There is a strong undercurrent of ideas of what beauty actually is, shown mainly by the juxtaposition in both looks and character of Iris and Clara.
I think what I liked about this book most was the characterisation of the main characters. Margarethe has to be one of the most unpleasant women I've ever read about, and becomes even more so at the end of the novel. In fact she is probably the only character here that stays fairly true to the fairytale characterisation. Iris, Ruth and Clara beak away from their simplistic roles and we start to see the personalities, actions and motivations that lead to the events of the night of the ball. And as well as the twist on the traditional fairytale happy ending, there is another twist at the end of this, which makes you go back and think really hard about some of the events of the story. I do like that total change of perspective right at the end.