Actually 3.5 stars--I demand half-stars, dammit!
I think I liked this. I found it less powerful than Wicked, but probably more likely to please a general audience: it has more warmth and redemption, less politics and religion, and no sex. It’s sad, but not nihilistic. It covers a much shorter time period, and the ending actually wraps things up. There is still grotesquerie and general weirdness, though.
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is, of course, the tale of Cinderella from the perspective of one of her stepsisters. It’s set in 1630’s Holland, in the midst of the Dutch tulip boom. This is the way fairy-tale retellings should be done: the book keeps the general structure of the fairy tale while telling a story entirely its own. And revisionist retellings are just that much better--I’ll take the well-intentioned but flawed “villain” over the beautiful, flawless "hero" any day.
So, the characters. Iris is a likeable protagonist and I did like her. On the surface she doesn’t seem to have much going for her--she’s plain, she likes art but isn’t a prodigy, she has a severely disabled sister and a she-bear of a mother who will do whatever it takes to provide for her daughters physically, but neglects their emotional well-being and their morals. But Iris is smart, caring and perceptive, which is what really counts. (I’m making this sound cheesy, but it isn’t!) Sadly though, Iris is the only one breathing life into the trio of stepsisters. Ruth is so limited as to be more prop than character, and Clara (Cinderella) spends most of the book in the literary version of the uncanny valley. She doesn’t seem quite human, and I found her creepy because of it. Until near the end I assumed this was intentional, but I’m longer so sure.
The setting is good, although more could have been done with it. (Skating on frozen canals--fun!) The writing is also good. The dialogue is for the most part good, but sometimes a bit too explanatory, as if the characters were speaking for an audience that’s a bit slow on the uptake; the author should give readers more credit. As it turns out, there aren’t any fantasy elements at all, although it feels as if they might appear at any moment. The ending is a bit rushed in comparison to the rest of the book.
A couple of other things bothered me. I didn’t quite believe the final twist; its thematic purpose is clear but it was a bit too jarring, too un-foreshadowed. And the obfuscation of Iris’s and Clara’s ages irritated. The book doesn’t seem to cover more than a year or so, but sometimes they feel as young as 11-12, other times as old as 16-17, and we never learn their actual age.
In the end, I prefer Maguire writing about adults to his writing about adolescents, but this is a good retelling. I don’t feel the need to buy a copy for my own shelves, as I did with Wicked, but it was enjoyable enough and, with its large font, a quick read.