Gregory Maguire, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

Posted June 6, 2012 by Kathy Davie in

Confessions of an Ugly StepsisterConfessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A retailored fairy tale for the adult mind.

My Take
This story has elements of the Cinderella tale with chunks of the movie Girl with a Pearl Earring (for me, anyway!) amidst all the maneuvering and manipulation.

Maguire certainly knows how to write a mean book. He teases and tantalizes as we attempt to find the Cinderella within even as he sprinkles dribs and drabs of truth. Leaving us wondering at the end why we read this depressing book. Oh, yes, Maguire is quite clever in his writing, but after all the nastiness, why oh why must he put such a wicked twist on what could have been several happily ever afters?

The Story
Margarethe, Iris, and Ruth have fled persecution in England and hope to seek refuge with Margarethe’s grandfather in Haarlem. Only nothing turns out as it should and the Fisher family begs their way across the city finally finding hope with the Master. His apprentice has left on a trip and the Master is hopeless. A trial period he will grant Margarethe until Caspar returns.

It’s the sample portrait of Iris which the Master paints for Herr van den Meer that is the next step in the family’s fortune. For Margarethe moves her and her children into Herr van den Meer’s home to cook and keep house while Schoonmaker paints the desired portrait of Clara with van den Meer’s exotic tulips. And Margarethe continues to move in and on. Rarely, if ever, nicely.

There are feasts to promote the incoming shipment of tulips. There are famines to moan the traumas. And it’s the last minute, daring maneuver that provides the reprieve. For some.

The Characters
Iris is the not-so-ugly sister who wants to paint and have a life of her own while Ruth is the ugly and seemingly retarded sister who simply wants acceptance. Neither daughter will ever be wanted by their mother, Margarethe neé ten Broek Fisher, a conniving, nasty woman. Jack Fisher is…was…the father who was killed back in England.

Clara is the blonde changeling—suspicious—daughter of one of the wealthy families in town. Herr Cornelius van den Meer is a tulip speculator using his wife Henrika‘s money.

Luykas Schoonmaker is the Master, the artist, the Master of the Dordrecht Altarpiece. Caspar is his apprentice. Nicolaes van Stolk holds the notes on van der Meer’s home and furnishings. And he’s got his eye on Clara.

Marie de Medici is the Dowager Queen of France and is throwing a ball for her godson Prince Philippe de Marsillac in Haarlem.

The Cover
The cover has a woodcut quality to the pumpkin carriage with its rat footman bowing in his livery and another standing at the back of the coach. I loved the cutout window with a Cinderella smirking out at us even as her prince is leering at her.

It’s true, this story is the Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, at least in her own eyes.

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