Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister was my pick for a fairytale retelling for my 2016 reading challenge. I read Wicked back when I was in high school, and wasn't a huge fan. There were some interesting aspects to it but I found it overall very strange and it didn't really agree with me. I liked Confessions much better!
The story takes place in seventeenth-century Holland, where the Fisher family has just fled after the death of the father. Our main character is Iris, the younger of the two "ugly stepsisters" from the traditional Cinderella story. When the family finds refuge with a painter, Iris finds a love for drawing and a growing attraction to the master painter's assistant, but is too busy helping her family to survive to act on her desires. Eventually, the family finds themselves moved into the house of a prosperous trader dealing in tulips, and this is where the Cinderella tale really begins to take shape. Iris is a much more sympathetic character than the stepsister in the story, but she still has her "ugly" moments on the inside--her looks are nothing to write home about, but her actions are, for the most part, well-intended.
But honestly, the most fascinating character here is Clara. She is such a weird Cinderella-character, and seeing her essentially relegate herself to her reduced status was something very different, as was her agoraphobia and her, honestly, bitchiness. For much of the book, Clara acts more like the stereotypical ugly stepsister than Iris and the older sister, Ruth. Clara's firm belief that she is a changeling is strange, but evidently a mechanism for coping with something that happened to her when she was younger. While some of the details come out eventually, not all of them do, but based on Clara's actions, I think we can probably make some educated guesses. It's definitely a darker take on the story than one typically reads, all of the grit of harsh reality without any of the light touches of magic to lighten things up. Some of the feel of it was, honestly, very similar to The Miniaturist, and I think readers of one would like the other. The Cinderella story is an overall minor aspect here, and this is more of a historical fiction with a bit of a fairytale-inspired treatment than a true fairytale retelling, because the retelling doesn't truly come into play until so late in the game.
SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH: The thing I didn't like here was Ruth. I thought the treatment of her character was an interesting one, and she has her own sort of growth throughout the story. When the revelations came out in the end, I at first thought that it was a fascinating way to go about it--but then there was an assertion by Ruth that I really didn't agree with. It just didn't seem to fit. While I think some of her actions, and that everyone underestimated her, suited the story overall, the suggestion that she had basically faked her mental/developmental disorder for her entire life in order to pull one over on her mother was...mildly offensive. I did not think that aspect worked, at all, and it really turned me off to the ending in general, which is a shame.
Overall, this was good. I liked it, and it's made me more inclined to read more of Maguire's work than Wicked did. I think the historical fiction-style retelling worked better than his treatment of Oz, though maybe if I went back to that book now I would feel differently. The revelation at the end here was a bit of a turn-off, but I think the bones of this story were good and the writing was elegant, I enjoyed it as a whole.
The Kindle edition, though, does need some serious work--there are a huge number of missing quotation marks, the paragraph/page breaks are strange, and the formatting is overall not good; very disappointing for a release from a major house.
3.5 stars out of 5.