Confessions Of An Ugly Stepsister: A Novel

Confessions Of An Ugly Stepsister: A Novel

by Gregory Maguire
Confessions Of An Ugly Stepsister: A Novel

Confessions Of An Ugly Stepsister: A Novel

by Gregory Maguire

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Overview

Is this new land a place where magics really happen?

From Gregory Maguire, the acclaimed author of Wicked, comes his much-anticipated second novel, a brilliant and provocative retelling of the timeless Cinderella tale.

In the lives of children, pumpkins can turn into coaches, mice and rats into human beings.... When we grow up, we learn that it's far more common for human beings to turn into rats....

We all have heard the story of Cinderella, the beautiful child cast out to slave among the ashes. But what of her stepsisters, the homely pair exiled into ignominy by the fame of their lovely sibling? What fate befell those untouched by beauty . . . and what curses accompanied Cinderella's exquisite looks?

Extreme beauty is an affliction

Set against the rich backdrop of seventeenth-century Holland, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister tells the story of Iris, an unlikely heroine who finds herself swept from the lowly streets of Haarlem to a strange world of wealth, artifice, and ambition. Iris's path quickly becomes intertwined with that of Clara, the mysterious and unnaturally beautiful girl destined to become her sister.

Clara was the prettiest child, but was her life the prettiest tale?

While Clara retreats to the cinders of the family hearth, burning all memories of her past, Iris seeks out the shadowy secrets of her new household--and the treacherous truth of her former life.

God and Satan snarling at each other like dogs.... Imps and fairy godmotbers trying to undo each other's work. How we try to pin the world between opposite extremes!

Far more than a mere fairy-tale, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is a novel of beauty and betrayal, illusion and understanding, reminding us that deception can be unearthed--and love unveiled--in the most unexpected of places.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061762598
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 03/17/2009
Sold by: HARPERCOLLINS
Format: eBook
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 44,291
Lexile: 860L (what's this?)
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

About The Author

Gregory Maguire is the New York Times bestselling author of the Wicked Years, a series that includes Wicked—the beloved classic that is the basis for the blockbuster Tony Award–winning Broadway musical of the same name and the major motion picture—Son of a WitchA Lion Among Men, and Out of Oz. His series Another Day continues the story of Oz with The Brides of Maracoor, The Oracle of Maracoor, and The Witch of Maracoor, and his other novels include A Wild Winter Swan, HiddenseeAfter AliceConfessions of an Ugly StepsisterLost, and Mirror Mirror. He lives in New England and France.

Hometown:

Boston, Massachusetts

Date of Birth:

June 9, 1954

Place of Birth:

Albany, New York

Education:

B.A., SUNY at Albany, 1976; M.A., Simmons College, 1978; Ph.D., Tufts University, 1990

Read an Excerpt

Marketplace

The wind being fierce and the tides unobliging, the ship from Harwich has a slow time of it. Timbers creak, sails snap as the vessel lurches up the brown river to the quay. It arrives later than expected, the bright finish to a cloudy afternoon. The travelers clamber out, eager for water to freshen their mouths. Among them are a strict-stemmed woman and two daughters.

The woman is bad-tempered because she's terrified. The last of her coin has gone to pay the passage. For two days, only the charity of fellow travelers has kept her and her girls from hunger. If you can call it charity -- a hard crust of bread, a rind of old cheese to gnaw. And then brought back up as gorge, thanks to the heaving sea. The mother has had to turn her face from it. Shame has a dreadful smell.

So mother and daughters stumble, taking a moment to find their footing on the quay. The sun rolls westward, the light falls lengthwise, the foreigners step into their shadows. The street is splotched with puddles from an earlier cloudburst.

The younger girl leads the older one. They are timid and eager. Are they stepping into a country of tales, wonders the younger girl. Is this new land a place where magic really happens? Not in cloaks of darkness as in England, but in light of day? How is this new world complected?

"Don't gawk, Iris. Don't lose yourself in fancy. And keep up," says the woman. "It won't do to arrive at Grandfather's house after dark. He might bar himself against robbers and rogues, not daring to open the doors and shutters till morning. Ruth, move your lazy limbs for once. Grandfather's house is beyond the marketplace, that much Iremember being told. We'll get nearer, we'll ask."

"Mama, Ruth is tired," says the younger daughter, "she hasn't eaten much nor slept well. We're coming as fast as we can.

"Don't apologize, it wastes your breath. just mend your ways and watch your tongue," says the mother. "Do you think I don't have enough on my mind?"

" Yes, of course," agrees the younger daughter, by rote, "it's just that Ruth-"

"You're always gnawing the same bone. Let Ruth speak for herself if she wants to complain."

But Ruth won't speak for herself. So they move up the street, along a shallow incline, between step-gabled brick houses. The small windowpanes, still unshuttered at this hour, pick up a late-afternoon shine. The stoops are scrubbed, the streets swept of manure and leaves and dirt. A smell of afternoon baking lifts from hidden kitchen yards. It awakens both hunger and hope. "Pies grow on their roofs in this town," the mother says. "That'll mean a welcome for us at Grandfather's. Surely. Surely. Now is the market this way? -- for beyond that we'll find his house -- or that way?"

"Oh, the market," says a croaky old dame, half hidden in the gloom of a doorway, "what you can buy there, and what you can sell!" The younger daughter screws herself around: Is this the voice of a wise woman, a fairy crone to help them?

"Tell me the way," says the mother, peering.

"You tell your own way," says the dame, and disappears. Nothing there but the shadow of her voice.

"Stingy with directions? Then stingy with charity too?" The mother squares her shoulders. "There's a church steeple. The market must be nearby. Come."

At the end of a lane the marketplace opens before them. The stalls are nested on the edges of a broad square, a church looming over one end and a government house opposite. Houses of prosperous people, shoulder to shoulder. All the buildings stand up straight-not like the slumped timberframed cottage back in England, back home ...

-- the cottage now abandoned ... abandoned in a storm of poundings at the shutters, of shouts: "A knife to your throat! You'll swallow my sharp blade. Open up!". . . Abandoned, as mother and daughters scrambled through a side window, a cudgel splintering the very door --

Screeeee -- an airborne alarm. Seagulls make arabesques near the front of the church, being kept from the fish tables by a couple of tired, zealous dogs. The public space is cold from the ocean wind, but it is lit rosy and golden, from sun on brick and stone. Anything might happen here, thinks the younger girl. Anything! Even, maybe, something good.

The market: near the end of its day. Smelling of tired vegetables, strong fish, smoking embers, earth on the roots of parsnips and cabbages. The habit of hunger is a hard one to master. The girls gasp. They are ravenous.

Fish laid to serry like roofing tiles, glinting in their own oils. Gourds and marrows. Apples, golden, red, green. Tumbles of grapes, some already jellying in their split skins. Cheeses coated with bone-hard wax, or caught in webbing and dripping whitely-cats sprawl beneath like Ottoman pashas, open-mouthed. "Oh," says the younger sister when the older one has stopped to gape at the abundance. "Mama, a throwaway scrap for us! There must be."

The mother's face draws even more closed than usual. I won't have us seen to be begging on our first afternoon here," she hisses. "Iris, don' t show such hunger in your eyes. Your greed betrays you."

"We haven't eaten a real pasty since England, Mama! When are we going to eat again? Ever?"

"We saw few gestures of charity for us there, and I won't ask for charity here," says the mother. "We are gone from England, Iris, escaped with our lives. You're hungry? Eat the air, drink the light. Food will follow. Hold your chin high and keep your pride."

But Iris's hunger -- a new one for her-is for the look of things as much as for the taste of them. Ever since the sudden flight from England ...

Confessions Of An Ugly Stepsister. Copyright © by Gregory Maguire. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Reading Group Guide

Summary

We have all heard the story of Cinderella, the beautiful child cast out to slave among the ashes. But what of her stepsisters, the homely pair exiled into ignominy by the fame of their lovely sibling? What fate befell those untouched by beauty...and what curses accompanied Cinderella's exquisite looks?

Set against the rich backdrop of seventeenth-century Holland, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister tells the story of Iris, an unlikely heroine who finds herself swept from the lowly streets of Haarlem to a strange world of wealth, artifice, and ambition. Iris's path quickly becomes intertwined with that of Clara, the mysterious and unnaturally beautiful girl destined to become her sister.

Far more than a mere fairy-tale, Confessions is a novel of beauty and betrayal, illusion and understanding, reminding us that deception can be unearthed -- and love unveiled -- in the most unexpected of places.

Questions for Discussion
  • While versions of the Cinderella story go back at least a thousand years, most Americans are familiar with the tale of the glass slippers, the pumpkin coach, and the fairy godmother. In what ways does Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister contain the magical echo of this tale, and in what ways does it embrace the traditions of a straight historical novel?

  • Confessions is, in part, about the difficulty and the value of seeing-seeing paintings, seeing beauty, seeing the truth. Each character in Confessions has blinkers or blinders on about one thing or another. What do the characters overlook, in themselves and in one another?

  • Discuss the role of artistic representation inConfessions. Consider the two portraits the Master paints. What do they say about each other, and about art? What does the Master purport to want to capture in his paintings, and why?

  • Gregory Maguire posits four types of beauty in the novel: that of physical human grace and perfection, that of flower blossoms, that of art, and that of the gesture of charity. Is it possible to make a statement about the relative values of beauty? How is each type of beauty represented in the story?

  • Is Clara's extreme beauty really an affliction, as Iris suggests, making her just another addition to the Gallery of God's Mistakes? Do you think her beauty is a curse or a blessing?

  • Iris is possessed by visions of imps and hobgoblins -- her imagination transforms a crone into the Queen of the Hairy-Chinned Gypsies, a windmill into a ferocious giant, and smoke on the horizon into a dragon's breath. Why do you think she sees the world this way? Ultimately, is there an imp in the van den Meer house?

  • The early seventeenth century was a time in which the Dutch, it is said, invented the idea of the "comfortable home." How does the van den Meer home reflect the family within? What elements in Confessions rely on the need to keep up appearances?

  • How does the story of van den Meer's rising and falling fortunes in the tulip market relate to Clara's tale? What lessons does it offer us today?

  • Clara is preoccupied with the idea that she may be a changeling. Why does she think, even hope, that she is one? In the end, how might we redefine the term "changeling" with Clara in mind?

  • In considering Marie de Medici's scheme to marry off her godson, Margarethe professes an admiration for the Dowager Queen, saying, "Why shouldn't she arrange the world to suit herself? Wouldn't we all, if we could?" [page 243). Discuss the ways that Margarethe arranges the world to suit herself. What does her favorite saying, "Give me room to cast my eel spear, and let follow what may," tell us about her?

  • When Iris asks the crone about casting a magic spell on someone, the crone replies, "It's your own job to change yourself" (page 164). Transformation is one of the main themes of "Cinderella," and of Confessions. Discuss the ways in which the characters are transformed or transform themselves over the course of the novel. What's the value and/or the cost of transformation for each?

  • On page 65, Margarethe tells Iris, "women must collaborate or perish." Does Margarethe really believe this statement? In what ways do women collaborate or fail to collaborate in the story?

  • The novel begins and ends with the issue of charity -- Margarethe's request for charity in a strange town and Clara's act of charity toward her stepmother and stepsisters. Discuss how these scenes frame the story. At the ball, the Master says, "perhaps charity is the kind of beauty that we comprehend the best because we miss it the most" (page 313). What does this mean to you?

  • How has the book changed your conception of the Cinderella story? The notion of "happily ever after"?

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