Imagine the story of Cinderella with no fairy godmother, no talking animals and no glass slippers. “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister” by Gregory McGuire is just that– a Cinderella story with no magic.
Yes, like the Disney version, there are princes and a ball and Clara’s new stepmother is far from warm and cuddly. But that’s where the likeness ends. “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister” is a more intricately woven story than the original Cinderella, and the characters are, for the most part, nothing like their traditional counterparts.
Beauty is not associated with goodness and evil is not represented with ugliness. In fact, Clara’s beauty becomes her fatal flaw. McGuire turns the classic tale on it’s head when he makes the gorgeous teen a brat who uses her looks to control and trample on people who are patient, loyal and good.
Iris, the stepsister that “Confessions” follows, is amazingly witty and resourceful but dreadfully plain. McGuire uses Iris’s thoughts on beauty and ugliness to comment on the value that society places in outward beauty. Instead of envying Clara for her beauty, Iris comes to pity her because Clara will never be seen as anything more than a pretty face.
And Clara, who is too timid and demure to leave the house after the death of her father, takes on household chores to pass her time. When Iris decides to study painting with the Master, Clara says:
“I don’t care if you’re happy or not, not really. But if you’re gone from the house, I’m the more secure in my kitchen. The more needed, the more private. Call me Cinderling,” says Clara, standing straighter behind her mask of ashes. “Call me Ashgirl, Cinderella, I don’t care. I am safe in the kitchen.”
Clara is content to stay inside and hide away from the world, while Iris is itching to make something of herself. Iris sees that she has something to contribute to the world, and Clara is the epitome of selfishness and paranoia. But the two sisters aren’t the only metaphors and symbols of McGuire’s theme.
Haarlem, Holland, where the story takes place, is a town trying to make its money from tulips, a gorgeous and delicate flower, but ends up going bankrupt. And the paint studio, full of lovely religious paintings, has a backroom where dark and sinister works of demons are stored. So, the Grimm Brothers had it wrong about beauty. As it plays out in “Confessions,” beauty is a distraction that leads to destruction.
The climax of the story takes place at a ball– of course. There, Clara meets her Prince Charming, who happens to be not so– charming.
McGuire is known for his creative and dark twists on classic fairy tales. He wrote the “Wicked” series, which inspired the mega-hit Broadway production of “Wicked,” and he does not disappoint with this adaptation of “Cinderella.” The biggest difference between “Confessions” and “Wicked” is that McGuire takes out all of the magical elements from the original story, but the absence of magic in “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister” is eye-opening and adds to the realness of the tale.
In the real world, there is no magic. And beauty doesn’t define who a person is inside or their future happiness.
“Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister” was a wonderful read, especially since the Halloween season is here. And although the story is devoid of fairy godmothers and talking animals, its magic lies in its deeply truthful rendition of a classic. The complexity of McGuire’s take on “Cinderella” is astounding and even better than “Wicked.” It is a hauntingly brilliant tale that teaches readers that fairy tales had to originate somewhere– and not all of those stories had happy endings.