Confessions of an Ugly StepsisterNot Just Another Cinderella Story

This was a book review I wrote as an entry to the Philippine Star’s Weekly Book Review Contest. It won and was published in the daily’s January 29, 2006 issue. The prize was PhP5,000 worth of gift certificates from National Bookstore. You can see the scan of the actual article by clicking here. This is actually one of the most memorable pieces I’ve written…

You may have seen different versions of the Cinderella classic, from the Brothers Grimm’s fantastically woven fairy tale, to Disney’s musical ensemble of singing mice and fairy godmothers, to Drew Barrymore’s portrayal of the orphan Danielle de Barbarac who suddenly finds herself saddled with a step-family in Ever After. The formula, however, has always been very consistent: one or two ugly step siblings, an ugly stepmother, and a beautiful heroine who triumphs in the end. No matter what age bracket you fall into a new angle in the story will always give you something to ponder on.

Enter Gregory Maguire and his fantasy novel Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. Unlike most versions of Cinderella that narrate the account through Cinderella’s eyes, Maguire shifts the perspective onto her homely stepsisters. Your journey begins with the family of three unfortunate souls. Margarethe is a mother of two, exiled from the land of her late English husband, and struggling to keep herself and her daughters alive. What she lacks in beauty, she makes up for by being smart and calculating. Iris, her youngest daughter, inherits this — minus the penchant for manipulation. Since she is the child blessed with good judgment, she is tasked to both assist her mother and watch over her older sister Ruth. The child who has neither beauty nor brains, Ruth, hardly recognizes that she is slow-witted or too young for her age. She basks in what miniscule comforts her surroundings provide.

The ill-fated family of three is swept into the streets of Holland, forced to rummage for food and sympathy. They eventually find their way, first into an artist’s charitable yet forbidding home, and later to a world of luxury, refinement, and opulence. In this world, they become stepsisters to the exquisite but outlandish Clara. Clara is the complete opposite of what the sisters have been grown accustomed to. She is blindingly gorgeous and naturally graceful — almost the epitome of perfection — but chooses a solitary life. She would rather run her household, or keep herself in the kitchens, than attend the lavish parties and conferences that are considered privileges of the highborn class.

One startling aspect that differentiates Maguire’s work from other retellings is the fact that friendship is cultivated among three astoundingly dissimilar children. With variances in beliefs and upbringing, Ruth, Iris, and Clara manage to bridge their worlds and forge their own tiny world of fun, discover, and games. Clara abhors exposure, but Iris and Ruth gaily force her out of her shell.

Alas, growing into womanhood isn’t as easy as picking flowers or peeling potatoes or dodging Margarethe’s strict demands. The girls try to reign in new feelings and emotions — the pangs of adolescence — as they also accidentally uncover many clues about their collective pasts. While Ruth huddles into her own corner, not quite oblivious to the goings-on, Clara and Iris unearth precious secrets that transform their domain forever. Love and betrayal are two sides of the coin that must be weighed in, and truth must ultimately pave the way in revealing that elusive happiness that everyone strives to attain.

Reading Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister not only brought me back to the idealistic stages of my girlhood, but also answered many of the questions that caused me to discard fairy tales on my way to adulthood. All of these questions are basically issues of value formation. Cinderella was just a beautiful girl with no personality, but she married a prince because of her looks. The stepmother and stepsisters were hideous, therefore causing them to be jealously mean to the “cinder wench.” None of the characters had a whit of intelligence. No redeeming factors had ever been shown; only that “ugly” and “bad” go together the way “pretty” and “good” must also go hand in hand. Critical thinking that would inquire as to why Cinderella’s father would marry such a wicked monster of a woman, who had two equally unappealing children to boot, had no place in a fairy tale. I thought Cinderella’s legend taught the wrong values and dismissed it as nothing more than a whimsical anecdote penned by unforgivably shallow brothers. Nothing beyond that was symbolically offered.

While many attempts at adding a touch of real personality to the characters have since been published and presented in movie theaters, nothing seems to come close to the three-dimensional figures that Gregory Maguire depicts. To add even more color to the otherwise small group of protagonists, Maguire introduces The Master, the reclusive artist who finds solice in the generally old-fashioned Margarethe, and Caspar, the apprentice who, despite his obsession for beauty, holds an extreme fascination for the hopelessly plain Iris. Even Clara’s parents, with their hen-pecker and hen-pecked relationship, are wittingly given life by Maguire’s pen.

The writing redefines the adjective “fantastic.” The words practically jump off the pages that one would find it hard to put the book down. The author avoids complicated terms yet manages to capture your imagination well enough to envision what he wants you to see. He is descriptive without overburdening his readers with flowery sentences. He is imaginative in his use of subtlety, allowing you to find inspiration in such a simple piece of literature. He makes business, politics, vanity and girlish play all seem like a part of a child’s world. He writes as if the book is meant for children, but it really isn’t. It is as if he makes you read another fairy tale, this time through the eyes of a youngster imbued with the understanding of an adult. Confessions makes you remember how hard it was to leave your childhood — growing up, experiencing disappointments, and finally reaching maturity by virtue of love and forgiveness.

Does the book have a happy ending? Maguire leaves it up to the reader to decide whether the conclusion is happy or not. There are many ways of perceiving the way it goes, though a reader might find himself pleasantly surprised with the little twist in the end. One sure thing about it is that you could be left with a feel-good plot that isn’t necessarily peppered with saccharine. It gives a dose of absolute clarity while keeping the tenets of fantasy storytelling intact.

Truly, I have never read a treasure as masterfully done as Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister…at least, not since I turned 13.

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