Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

I think that one of the reasons the bookshelves in my house are stacked and stuffed full is because it's really fun to go back and read something again. Start it fresh; do it again. I think the first time that I read Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire was about 5 years ago. I remembered much, but certainly not all of it. The big reveal at the end, I remembered and anticipated it. I read with a bit of a different perspective than I did the first time. But there were those little secrets here and there that I had forgotten, and that is half the fun of rediscovering a novel already read.

I love the way that Mr. Maguire takes this well known family, Cinderella and her Ugly Step-Family, and makes us look again. Turn around. What is the story that we don't know?

SPOILER ALERT: If you have not yet read (or finished) Confessions, but plan to, you will want to skip this post until the book has been completed. If you do not wish to ruin the book for yourself, stop reading HERE.

Why, do you think Mr. Maguire has chosen to put Clara in a stuffy little family, causing her to become the spoiled brat we find in the beginning of the book? The mother, Henrika, overly protective, while her father does not really seem to know her at all? She acts completely entitled, selfish and sometimes, sour. Her outward appearance is stunningly beautiful, but it does not match her personality.
Was Henrika wrong to keep her in so close at all times? Clara has been instilled with the idea that she will be damaged if she leaves the yard. What good does this do for a child who will grow, and need to leave? Was Henrika's choice merely out of love and protection, or was it somewhat selfish?

On the other hand, we have Margarethe, who seems to have a displeasure in her children. She is vocal in the presence of her daughters of their 'ugliness.' Ruth, the ox, and Iris, "plain as a board, an affront to the eye." I think this perhaps portrays a sense of hatred toward her daughters. She never gives an expression of love, a smile, a hug, a praising word. It seems as though Margarethe believes she is saddled with these less than favorable girls and out of obligation drags them with her to Holland.

With these two families on the extremes of beauty versus ugly, we also have the Master and his apprentice, Caspar. As painters, they can see the world in all angles. Caspar does not find the painting of Iris, "Ugly Girl with Wildflowers," to be offensive, but to take two ordinary things, a peasant girl and a clutch of wildflowers. They are contrasted enough to say, "Aren't the flowers beautiful?"
Caspar, in particular can judge more than the obvious beauty. He looks at things for what they are, not simply as they appear.

Why, then is Margarethe so evil? She fled England, claiming her husband to be dead. Why? What was after her? And now, as the kitchen maid in a substantial household, she forces her way in as wife? It is revealed that Margarethe poisons Clara's mother, Henrika. What purpose does this serve other than a selfish motive? A place to sleep and food to eat were clearly not enough. Stature was mandatory. But it turns out that it is just not meant to be for Margarethe. They are on the verge of losing everything, and still Margarethe insists on putting themselves under more than they can handle, just to grasp that one last chance at survival and triumph.

Iris seems to be the one with the most conscience. She minds Ruth, works on Clara, and tries to reason with Margarethe. When Iris dresses up Clara for the ball, she does it knowing that Clara has the most chance of catching the eye of the prince and of saving, at minimum, her own fortune. It is not truly to undermine Margarethe, just more of insurance against their miserable fate. There is a twinge of jealousy, however. Does this make her evil? I'd say, no, merely human. And, of course, Clara is better suited for the Prince. They both have shallow intentions, and it is a match. Iris gets to marry Caspar. Isn't that what we were hoping for all along?

What of Ruth? She is a side note through the entire story. But in the end, we find she was not so slow as she is given credit for. Clearly, she had a hand in the things that took place. Margarethe's vision was worsened by Ruth. The fire? Ruth.
After Henrika's death, Clara spends time in the kitchen, finding solitude from the home that is no longer hers. Iris is spending more time at the Master's to learn art. So Ruth is left with Clara. While Iris did keep an eye on her sister, there is one point in the novel where Iris is said to hate Ruth. Iris was to be a companion for Clara, teach her English, be her friend. Ruth, it seems is more suitable to the task of friendship, and they spend time together in the kitchen. I think that perhaps Ruth conspires against her mother, Margarethe, because she feels a closer bond to Clara, but perhaps also because she thinks it will benefit Iris, too, if Margarethe is put to a stop. But why is Ruth such a minor character when she has such a big role to play?

And what of the idea of being a changeling? Is it that we need a reason to explain away our peculiarities? Does Clara need to hide behind who she is? Does it make it easier to say "I am a changeling, so I cannot leave this home" than to say "I am afraid of the world, and so choose to stay home" ? As she grows, why does Clara cling to this claim? Why does Iris insist it isn't true, and additionally insist that Ruth couldn't be one, because she has always been Ruth?

I love a book that makes you think of your own life. What would you do? How would you handle the situation? Why is society the way it is?

Please feel free to give me your opinions. What do you think?


Elizabeth said...

Sad face :(. I did not read the book. I didn't even get it yet. And I did not read your post past the "stop reading HERE" because I don't like spoilers.

I do agree with you about reading a book over. It is SO fun! And kind of like visiting an old friend. You remember lots of things, but you discover lots of little secrets over again. And you read with a different perspective. So true! I love to read a book more than once. The Harry Potter series are my most-read books and Twilight comes in second. I wish I had more time for reading. If only I didn't have to sleep at night . . .

Also, your button is SO cute! love it!

xo -E

Carrie said...

I really only re-read when I am doing it to share with someone else, ie reading aloud to my children. There are so many books that I am excited to re-read when the kids are old enough (Narnia, Harry Potter, Ender's Game) But for now I love new recommendations, of which this was an enjoyable one.
I didn't really like it in the context of Cinderella, although part of what compelled me to the end was wanting to see how the author turned this "other" story about Iris into Cinderella. As its own story I really liked it and would have loved to see more of Iris' "happily ever after" with Caspar at the end.
I thought the society that the story took place in was awful. Is it supposed to be a commentary on our current society? If so, I choose to live in a more optimistic state of viewing the world, believing that people are generally charitable and caring. Perhaps the author is trying to paint a picture to in some way justify Margarethe's actions as truly necessary for her and her daughters' survival but I am not buying it. But he certainly got wicked stepmother down. (and it bothers me to no end that she never had to answer for her crimes)
Henrika- after learning what happened to Clara, and having my own wandering daughter, I can certainly understand her desire to keep the girl "safe" but it seems that she unintentionally stifled much of Clara's natural personality and children will grow into adults so they must be taught how to operate in the world.
That is part of the changeling idea. I think that ties into one of the themes of the book- how we change from childhood to adulthood. How the experiences and perceptions of our childhood inform those changes.
So there you have my two cents :)