Review: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

I was going to read Confessions in September or October, but I couldn’t resist. I decided to take a peak at the beginning of the book, maybe read the first few lines or paragraphs, maybe the first chapter, but once I started I didn’t want to put it down so I just kept going. It took me a week or two to get through it, it’s kind of long, but it’s really good!

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I’d give Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister 4 out of 5 stars. It’s not going on my Favorite Books list, that would be a 5, but it is very good and I definitely recommend it. There were two reasons I decided to read this book. First, I wanted another challenging read. I just got done reading After Alice a few weeks ago and it was very challenging. I expected Confessions to be the same. The second reason I decided to read it was because of what the Detroit Free Press said about it: “An arresting hybrid of mystery, fairy tale, and historical novel . . . . Confessions . . . isn’t easy to classify or forget.”
Hybrid of mystery, fairy tale, and historical novel? I definitely agree.

The novel has a few mysteries, I won’t say whether they are solved or not, and it has a surprise ending. Really, I did not see that coming! The characters are very well done, particularly the evolution of “Cinderella” and her “evil step-mother” -who they started as and who they eventually became. You gradually get to know each individual a little more with each passing chapter. This makes it a very authentic experience and makes the characters seem so real that when the book ends you know you’re going to miss them. (I really loved the main character, Iris. She was so relatable. I do miss her.)

Maguire’s version of the Cinderella story suggests that we’ve got it all wrong. Cinderella wasn’t forced into being a servant in her own house, she chose it. She did not hate her step-sisters and they did not hate her. These sisters loved each other. And as for the “evil” step-mother . . . . well, that’s more complicated. In the end I felt that the step-mother was, at the very least, extremely selfish, but other readers might come to a different conclusion about her.

The other Gregory Maguire novels that I’ve read, Wicked and After Alice, were a bit difficult to read and follow, but I did not have that problem with Confessions. I’m not sure if this was because I’ve gotten used to Maguire’s writing style or if Confessions really is just easier to read than the others. To me Confessions seemed to be written in a more straight-forward way, no intellectual sidebars, and no obscure words or phrases.

Another reason this may have been easier for me to read was because I’ve read Girl With a Pearl Earring which is like a pre-requisite for Confessions. Both novels are set in the Netherlands during the Dutch painting renaissance, the Dutch Golden Age of painting. Both novels give detailed descriptions of life in the Netherlands at that time- the people (rich and poor), the markets, the canals. (The canals becoming clogged with giant chunks of ice or freezing over altogether was really fascinating!) Each novel also gives a detailed description of the art and science of the painting process which I found very interesting. If you read either of these novels you will learn A LOT about painting- color, light, the moods of the artist, and how they made their colors.

I learned a lot from these novels! In Confessions the reader also learns a lot about the history of one of the things the Netherlands is renowned for: tulips. What, besides paintings, canals, wooden shoes and dikes, is more Dutch than tulips?! But did you know that Tulips are not native to the Netherlands?
This is why I read people, this is why I read. I learn something new every time.

So, obviously, in addition to Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister I also highly recommend Girl With a Pearl Earring. But if you happen to be working on an autumn-themed reading list I recommend Confessions. With its secrets and mystery, imps and changelings, it can be a little dark, and wouldn’t make a  half-bad Halloween read.

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Review: An Old-Fashioned Girl, final thoughts

So much wisdom encapsulated in an entertaining little story!

I haven’t had time for blogging this past week. It’s very difficult to blog when you have kids at home all day. However, several weeks ago I did a 2nd, more in depth review of An Old-Fashioned Girl. It’s practically an essay! Only god knows why I do this, why I write so much… Why in the world would I write an essay that no one is going to read?! Why?!
But it’s a good thing I did, I guess, because I don’t have anything else to post nor time to come up with anything else.
So, here you go- my 2nd review of An Old-Fashioned Girl, written several weeks ago.

As I was saying…

So much wisdom encapsulated in an entertaining little story!

I did a review of An Old-Fashioned Girl on June 30th, but in that one I focused more on a character comparison and analysis of Polly and Fanny, especially Polly.
In this review I will still have a few more things to say about Polly, but I will focus more on the novel itself and its themes.

I thought this story was going to be nothing more than Poor Girl and Rich Girl find that they can learn from each other. But it’s so much more than that. I was really surprised by how long this story was! It isn’t the longest book, in terms of pages, that I’ve ever read, but I think it seemed longer because it moves kind of slowly. It isn’t boring though, at least not to a reader like me who really enjoys 19th century novels.
The characters are entertaining and very distinct from one another, and a lot happens in the novel, but most of the events are minor and unfold slowly. There was, however, one plot twist at the end that I did not see coming. (Excellent!)
Another thing to note about this novel is that it is told in two parts. Part two begins 6 years after the end of part one, but in a way they seem like two totally separate books.

If you’ve read Little Women it’s hard not to make comparisons between it and An Old-Fashioned Girl. The length, scope, and pace of each story is very similar. The setting and characters and their interactions are also similar. Both books deal with regular day-to-day life events, as well as common milestones. Both stories are very tame, mild, and wholesome, and have several very clear opinions, themes, and moral lessons which are presented throughout the story . . .

The rich unfairly judge and snub the poor, love is more powerful than poverty, poverty can be a great teacher, self-improvement leads to a good life, hard work and purpose are essential for a good life, what you do is more important than what you wear, little girls shouldn’t grow up too quickly, one should strive to be as selfless as possible, doing for others is one of the keys to happiness, women should help lift each other up, the bond between women is very important and empowering . . . etc., etc., (I’ve also noticed that death and grief seem to be recurring themes in LMA’s stories.)
The brilliant part, and why LMA’s work is widely considered to be so enduring, is that these things are still very relevant today- as anyone who reviews either book will point out.

After reading An Old-Fashioned Girl I think that the theme and belief most important to Louisa was “work and purpose.” Time and time again this is directly stated throughout the novel, either by the narrator or the novel’s extra-perfect “little Polly.” I know this won’t go over well with some readers, but sometimes Polly was so perfect that it was down right annoying. She was like Mary freakin’ Poppins! “Practically Perfect In Every Way.”

However, Polly was likable, and even occasionally relatable- she has hopes and dreams, she cries and doubts. As I stated in my first review, Polly was an interesting character, but  not an entirely realistic one. She represents the ideals that LMA holds so dear, she is the story’s protagonist and catalyst.
Much more realistic are the members of the Shaw family, especially Mr. Shaw, Tom, and Fanny, who are so very flawed that they all eventually find themselves very unhappy, but they each achieve great personal growth and happiness by novel’s end. Personal growth and self-improvement are also major themes in Little Women.  Based on what I’ve read by LMA fans these themes are in almost all of her work.

Now, back to “work and purpose.” In the story, Polly, who is poor, is often much happier than her best friend, Fanny.  Despite the money, conveniences, and luxuries she has, Fanny is often dissatisfied with her life. Polly encourages her to try and find something to do. She tries to persuade Fanny that if she had a purpose she would be happier. As the story moves on, Fanny comes to believe this more and more, and to her relief and satisfaction it eventually happens.

” . . . feeling that at last necessity had given her what she had long needed, something to do.”

“I shall groan and moan by and by, I dare say, but . . . I’m half glad it’s happened, for it takes me out of myself, and gives me something to do.”

Through An Old-Fashioned girl, Louisa May Alcott adamantly declares that people without something substantial and meaningful to do will not be happy. Idleness leads to “listlessness,” meanness, and possibly a depressed-like state. Work and purpose make for a good life, they keep a person happy and healthy.

“. . . Polly came to know a little sisterhood of busy, happy, independent, girls, who each had a purpose to execute, a talent to develop, an ambition to achieve, and brought to the work patience and perseverance, hope and courage. . . . All these helped Polly . . . for purpose and principle are the best teachers we can have, and the want of them makes half the women in America what they are, restless, aimless, frivolous, and sick.”

I agree wholeheartedly! I know from personal experience how true this is.
But you need love too, especially in childhood. True, LMA included the theme of love in this story- Polly’s family is very loving- but LMA did not directly state or emphasize the importance of love and affection to the degree that she did work and purpose.

I say that if love and affection are in place then, yes, bring on the work and purpose! These are absolutely necessary for human beings to be happy and healthy. This is true age-old wisdom going back thousands of years.

I have to say it again, so much wisdom encapsulated in an entertaining little story!

The following are some of my favorite quotes from An Old-Fashioned Girl:

” . . . she received, from an unexpected source, some of the real help which teaches young people how to bear these small crosses, by showing them the heavier ones they have escaped . . .”

 

” . . . that indescribable something which women are quick to see and feel in men who have been blessed with wise and good mothers.”

 

” . . . hearts are so “contrary” that they won’t be obedient to reason, will, or even gratitude.”

 

” . . . soon she had other sorrows beside her own to comfort, and such work does a body more good than floods of regretful tears, or hours of sentimental lamentations.”

 

“I can’t sell myself for an establishment.”

 

” . . . so she put her love away in a corner of her heart, and tried to forget it, hoping it would either die, or have a right to live.”

 

“Blessings, like curses, come home to roost.”

 

” He exaggerated his faults and follies into sins of the deepest dye.”

“He was either pathetically humble or tragically cross.”

 

“Why are bad boys like cake?”
“Because a good beating makes them better.”

 

“Everybody fell to eating cake, as if indigestion was one of the lost arts.”

 

“The gentlest girls when roused are more impressive than any shrew; for even turtle doves gallantly peck to defend their nests.”

 

“Occasionally a matrimonial epidemic appears…”

 

” . . . love and labor, two beautiful old fashions that began long ago, with the first pair in Eden.”

 

“I’ve had so many plans in my head lately, that sometimes it seems as if it would split . . .”

. . . which is exactly how I’ve been feeling about this blog.

 

Book Talk and Thoughts: Miss Peregrine’s book and movie

So a few posts ago I mentioned that I would be reading Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. And I did. I finished it several days ago actually. The problem is I don’t have much to say about it, but I’ll give you what little I’ve got. I feel that calling this a “review” would be a bit of a stretch, not only because I don’t have much to say about the book, but also because I’m going to talk about the upcoming movie.

It’s nearly impossible for me to talk about the Miss Peregrine novel without comparing it to the upcoming movie (September.)  I’m really looking forward to seeing it, or, as my inner valley girl would put it- “I mean, I’m like, SUPER excited to see that movie! Oh my god I can’t wait!”  I’m absolutely certain I’m going to like the movie more than the book. The trailers for that movie are amazing and they’re 99% of the reason I decided to read the book. Based solely on the 2 minute trailers available, I can see that the book and movie are going to differ in some major ways. In fact, I wonder if these major differences will disappoint or annoy the fans of the novel.

So . . . Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As I previously explained, I think it was about this time last year, or maybe during autumn and winter of last year, I kept seeing this book at my local grocery store. Copies and copies and copies of this book with the strange and creepy (yet alluring) cover would stare at me every time I walked by the book/magazine/greeting card section of the store; beckoning to me- read me, read me , read me. I can’t deny I was drawn to it. Not only does the cover of the book draw you in, the title does too. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children— that is a great title.

Despite its obvious success and mainstream popularity, despite its unique and alluring cover, I opted at that time not to read it. I can’t tell you how many times I picked up a copy and read the story description and plot synopsis. But I came to the same conclusion each time- too scary. I can’t do scary. No scary movies, no scary books. I didn’t want to read it because I was concerned it would keep me up at night.

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Turns out I was right. This book is scary. Those strange old photos in the book are very creepy and eerie and, yes, it kept me up at night. However, I am a bit sensitive when it comes to that stuff. I’m easily scared. My mother-in-law mentioned that it kept her up at night as well, but she really liked it- said she couldn’t put it down. That wasn’t my experience at first but, yes, towards the end of the book I couldn’t put it down. As quoted from the review in The Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Brace yourself for the last 70 pages . . . “
I definitely agree with that.
Apparently CNN said “Readers searching for the next Harry Potter may want to visit Miss Peregrine’s . . .”  It’s also been compared to X-MEN. (Entertainment Weekly) As for the Harry Potter comment, for me that would be a No. I don’t think so. This is not the next Harry Potter. Reading Harry Potter, especially the early years, is fun!
Miss Peregrine’s is . . . not so much fun as it is creepy and scary. Thrilling and suspenseful too! (To be fair.) But not exactly fun nor uplifting the way Harry Potter was (is) for me. As for the X-MEN comparison, yes, I agree. X-MEN definitely came to mind when I was reading this.

The movie previews made me think I had misjudged the book, but I don’t think I did. The previews of the movie present a quirky, colorful, fantasy-adventure, but I found the book to very dark, which is what I suspected in the first place. I like what McClatchy Wire Service said, “Got a tweener child with a taste for creepy horror and time-travel stories? Send them Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

“Creepy horror.” Exactly. Oh, and time travel.
This is such a crap “review” I’m doing here that I haven’t even mentioned the time-travel aspect of the book, which is a major part of the story/plot so how could I not have mentioned it?! I don’t know. I just don’t know. I have no satisfactory explanation. All I can say is that the whole time-travel part of the plot didn’t leave a big impression on me. I was too distracted by the “creepy horror.”

I will say this- the fact that the book contains old photos makes it very unique. That was a very creative idea. The photos definitely create a different kind of reading experience. The plot is smart and very well organized, which is very cool and impressive considering there is time-travel involved. The depiction of the Welsh island where the story takes place is very well done. The characters are good, especially Miss Peregrine herself, but I don’t think I’ll remember the personalities of the other characters as much as I will their “peculiar” abilities- levitation, fire, invisibility, etc.
All in all, I thought the book was ok. Most, if not all, of the reviews rave about this book, but I’m not raving. Just not my cup of tea, I guess. I like how the book ended- it had a well written ending, but I don’t feel the urge to read the next one in the series. With all of the books on my to-read list I doubt I will read the other books in this series.
I’ll just go see the movies.

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Review: After Alice, concluding thoughts

“All of life hinges on what one does next, until finally one makes the wrong choice. But was this that moment?” 

“Alice, I’m coming.”

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After Alice, by Gregory Maguire, tells the story of what was happening in Alice’s world after she chased the white rabbit and fell down the rabbit hole. It can be a difficult book to read and follow, especially the first few chapters, but the more I read the easier (and better) it got. The more I read, the more I liked it, and by the end I really liked it. It isn’t going on my “Favorite Books” list, but I liked it well enough to maybe read it again one day. It isn’t a long novel, but it also isn’t a quick read.

In between the telling of the actual story the author inserts thoughts and lectures on a variety of topics– philosophy, theology, evolution, architecture, even the city of Oxford itself. It’s all very smart and interesting, but it’s also what makes the book difficult to understand at times. The topics the author touches on, and themes he hints at, add to the novel in a way I can barely comprehend- I can’t deny that. But you really could take those parts out of the book and the story itself would remain in tact.

After Alice switches back and forth between the underworld and the “upper world.” The narration also switches from character to character. Usually I don’t like this in a book, sometimes I absolutely despise it, but in this case it wasn’t so bad and it didn’t bother me that much.
Alice is mentioned throughout the story, and we learn a lot about her peculiar personality, but she isn’t an active character in this novel. She doesn’t appear until the very end and has only a few lines of dialogue, but they’re great. Quintessentially Alice.

The main characters are Alice’s older sister Lydia, her friend Ada, and Ada’s governess, Miss Armstrong. The reader learns a lot about Alice’s older sister Lydia, which I found really interesting. You also learn a great deal about Ada, “a friend of Alice’s mentioned briefly in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” (Many of the well known characters from the original Wonderland novel are also in After Alice– the Mad Hatter and the hare, the White Rabbit, the White Queen, and the Queen of Hearts, as well as others.)

Ada is a curious character and I liked her. There is a lot of description about her physical appearance. She is described as having a “distortion in her skeletal structure,” and walks with “a stoop and a gimp.” In an attempt to correct this Ada has to wear an iron corset, and all of this comes into play throughout the story.

We also learn a little about the members of Ada’s family, her quiet father the Vicar, her “dropsical” mother, and her new-born baby brother who has a large impact at the start of the story. I found it both fascinating and annoying that the author referred to the baby in 15 different ways within the span of only 5 pages!
Good god, I had no idea what the hell was going on at first! It took me forever to understand that the author was only talking about a colicky or sick baby. The problem was he didn’t just come out and say it. Apparently Mr. Maguire has something against clarity! Or maybe laziness. Gregory Maguire wants you to work for the story, he isn’t going to just hand it over to you, you mental loafer!
So, as I was saying, Ada’s baby brother is referred to in 15 different ways in the space of only 5 pages. First it’s the poor creature and then pink smudge of infant, infant in peril, wretched offspring,
“His Lordship the Infant Tyrant”
“The Tiny Interruption”
“Boy Boyce,” etc.

There are also several minor, but very interesting characters. Mrs. Brummige and Rhoda, two servants in Alice’s household.  Mr. Winters, an American man visiting England with his adopted son. Siam, Mr. Winters’ adopted son, a young boy rescued from slavery in the South. And, the biggest surprise character of all, Darwin. Yes, the Darwin is a character in After Alice.

So, as I said, even though I got off to a rough start with After Alice, in the end I really liked it. Actually, it was the surprise, very clever plot twist at the end of the book that sealed the deal. There is a very unexpected “witness” in the trial at the Queen’s garden party- it’s brilliant! I loved it. I also think I got more out of After Alice because I had previously read Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, so I definitely recommend that.

Also recommended, Confessions of An Ugly Step-Sister.
“An arresting hybrid of mystery, fairy tale, and historical novel. . . . Confessions . . . isn’t easy to classify or forget.”
  -The Detroit Free Press. (From the back of the After Alice book jacket.)

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A hybrid of mystery, fairy tale, and historical novel that isn’t easy to classify?!
How could I not read it! How can I not accept this challenge? Because a challenge it will most definitely be. A friend of mine told me a few weeks ago that she read Confessions, and she confessed to encountering the same difficulties that my mother-in-law and I had with Wicked and After Alice- a hazy, patchy style of storytelling, too many obscure words, a lot of philosophical sidebars that do not seem to further the plot or character development. She said she didn’t know what was going on until several chapters into the book, and even then the story still wasn’t very clear most of the time.
Still, I don’t think I’ll be able to resist reading it.

However, that won’t be until September or October at the earliest. The next book I’m reading is, of course, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

 

 

Review and character analysis: An Old-Fashioned Girl

I’ll be honest. The first several paragraphs of this post are me sharing my random thoughts and research about Louisa May Alcott, and the random things that happened leading up to me joining the LMA reading challenge. While I find my random thoughts to be most interesting, you might not.
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So if you’d rather skip to the actual review of An Old-Fashioned Girl, just scroll down until you come to the novel’s cover.

I had no idea I’d be reading a Louisa May Alcott novel this summer. There wasn’t one on my list. In fact, up until a few months ago I didn’t know about 99% of what LMA wrote.
So how did I come to read An Old-Fashioned Girl?  Well, about 2 weeks ago, Tarissa over at In The Bookcase invited me to take part in a Louisa May Alcott reading challenge. The challenge was to read 3 books either by or about LMA within the month of June. I couldn’t complete the full challenge because I came in and got started so late, but I wanted to read at least one LMA novel that I had never read before.
Since the only novel by LMA that I’ve ever read was Little Women I had tons to choose from. Louisa May Alcott wrote a lot of novels and short stories. She is definitely one of the most underrated, under appreciated classic authors. Her work, and the amount of it, should be just as well known and as much celebrated as Dickens and Austen. True, there is ample respect, admiration, and reverence for Little Women, but LMA did so much more!

So, as I was saying, there was a lot to choose from. Tarissa, as well as some others at In The Bookcase, chose An Old-Fashioned Girl as one of their reading challenge selections. I remembered coming across that title a few months ago when I did a little research on LMA after a chance encounter with one of her short stories, Ripple The Water-Spirit.
Also suggested on In The Bookcase: The Skipping Stones, a short story by LMA found in the book Faerie Gold, Jo’s Boys by LMA, March by Geraldine Brooks, Pedlar’s Progress: The Life of Bronson Alcott by Odell Shepard, Little Women Next Door by Sheila Solomon Klass, and Illuminated by The Message by Susan Bailey.
Susan Bailey also took part in the LMA reading challenge and is creator and host of the website LouisaMayAlcottIsMyPassion. And here’s an interesting little coincidence- I actually came across that website a few months back when I was doing my first round of research on LMA after finding Ripple The Water-Spirit. My review of that story is how Tarissa came to find me and invite me to take part in the LMA reading challenge. Talk about coming full circle! Wow! What are the odds that this would happen?! …..Amazing.

Well, back to the actual review I’m supposed to be doing…..
So, as I said, there were several good LMA options suggested on In The Bookcase. Through my own research I also came across Rose In Bloom and A Long Fatal Love Chase– one of LMA’s gothic novels. Apparently she wrote several somewhat dark and edgy gothic novels. Who Knew!? Again, something I was not aware of and very pleasantly surprised to discover. I am now very curious to read some of those and compare them to the more tame stories that LMA is better known for. However, I decided that I wasn’t in the mood for a gothic novel, so I narrowed it down to Rose In Bloom and An Old-Fashioned Girl. My final choice was Old-Fashioned Girl.

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No surprise, I really enjoyed reading An Old-Fashioned Girl–  memorable characters, themes to make you think, and that beautiful language! I absolutely love the “old-fashioned” language of 19th century literature. They just don’t write them like that anymore.

At first I thought for sure I was going to go with Rose In Bloom by LMA because I felt that I could relate more to the independent Rose rather than the “old-fashioned” Polly. In order to decide which book to read I read the first chapter of both books then slept on it. An OldFashioned Girl was the one that stuck with me the most. Even though I didn’t feel that I completely related to either Polly or Fanny Shaw, I wanted to see how things would play out in this story of “Old-Fashioned Meets (or collides with) Modern & Trendy”.
Besides, its clear that the personality of Polly and Fanny were somewhat exaggerated (purposely), so it was no wonder that I didn’t completely relate to either of them. No matter- a good story is a good story, and excellent writing is excellent writing. Also, it would be fun to see if I could find within myself a little bit of each girl/character. I suspect it’s true for most of us.

One thing that definitely struck me about Polly was her strong sense of self and her resolution in her beliefs and morals- and I admired her for this. She is shy, yes, and self-conscious at times, but when it came down to it she defended herself and her family, their “country” way of life and their values. That type of character was very new and interesting to me. In my reading experience, when a character compares herself to others, or finds herself in situations where comparisons are inevitable, she initially doubts herself quite a bit.
Polly was almost unshakable, even when she experienced moments of uncertainty about herself and her un-modern ways they were very brief, and she kept her doubt to herself. Again, I found all of this very interesting. I’m used to Jane Austen characters who either show their vulnerability at all times, or have at least one confidant to whom they admit their insecurities. I think this is what usually happens in real life.
Most of us experience a lot of self-doubt, sometimes even to the point of trying to be something, or someone, that we’re not. But Polly never did that. She has her own brand of confidence; a confidence that obviously stems from her loving family, the bond she has with them, and the respect she has for them- especially her mother.
I’m sure I read somewhere a comparison between Polly and Melanie Wilkes from Gone With the Wind. I definitely see their similarities, but Melanie always seemed to me to be unaware of how different she was, whereas Polly is aware of the differences between herself and Fanny, and Fanny’s friends. Speaking of Fanny, it is the character by the same name (Fanny Price) in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park that Polly most reminds me of. They would both be considered “goody-two-shoes” and old-fashioned, both have very high moral standards and stick to them even when faced with ostracization.

Polly is a unique and interesting character, but not realistic. However, maybe she wasn’t meant to be realistic; she represents an ideal, a model to follow- LMA said as much in her preface to An Old-Fashioned Girl.
I think I do have a little bit, just a teeny bit, of an inner Polly. My morals and feelings regarding some things probably would seem old-fashioned to many people today. In fact, I know they are because my husband tells me so! (Haha!) However, I do also have a wild side and I’m certainly not the most conservative person I’ve ever known. I’ve got a little bit of an inner Fanny Shaw too- sometimes I have a temper (like she did with her brother!), I make mistakes, sometimes I have to go back and apologize, and, of course, sometimes I like to dress up, go out, and have fun!
Like many others, I was definitely more of a Fanny Shaw when I was young but- I grew up. The older I get and the more I grow as a person, the more I become like Fanny Price, Melanie Wilkes, and Polly too- smart, kind, and confident.