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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