Coles Book Store has a shelf marked ‘New and Hot’ where, presumably, all the newest and hottest books can be found. The past few times I’ve been in there, I’ve seen a copy of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, which I happen to know isn’t new because my twelfth grade English teacher gave me a copy when I graduated, and that was seven years ago. Maybe the shelf should read ‘New or Hot,’ because it is entirely possible that the world has just caught on to how awesome that book is.
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister – Gregory Maguire
Folks, it is awesome.
I don’t usually purchase books sight-unread because I can’t afford to be spending money on mediocre books, but based on Wicked, I had great hopes for Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. Plus, I was stuck at the mall for a few hours and there was no library close at hand. Maybe it’s just my sophomore curse, but I found Confessions to be a step down.
Don’t get me wrong. Maguire’s got loads of imagination, and the storytelling ability to carry it off. A lot of his appeal rests on how deeply these tales are embedded in our collective psyche. Reading The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West feels both new and exciting, and comfortingly familiar. Ditto Confessions. We fairy-tale gluttons get a whole back story for those characters we loved to hate, who, it turns out, were predominately misunderstood (history is written by the winners, after all).
So we all know the wicked stepmother and her two ugly daughters, did we know that their names are Margarethe, Iris, and Ruth? Or that they are not wicked (although they are – through no fault of theirs – ugly), but that they are poor, and are fleeing England where the girls’ father was killed? They finally find work, room, and board with a struggling painter who has been commissioned to paint the achingly lovely Clara (whom you would know by a different name). The mysteries of how Margarethe came to marry Clara’s father; the real motivation behind the fancy ball; how Clara ended up, first in the ashes, then wreathed in gold; the true origins of the glass slipper – well, I’ll leave you to read those things for yourself. Suffice it to say that Maguire doesn’t disappoint.
Unfortunately, Maguire wraps his intriguing re-telling in an overly-archaic style. His dialogue is stilted and unrealistic – even for a fairy tale – with characters answering questions no one had asked and launching into mini-soliloquies while everyone else, presumably, just stands around and waits for the action to resume. There are some elements of plot that were introduced and then never touched on again, almost as though he’d forgotten they were there. The ending was satisfactory, though, and that’s all I can really ask for.
My favorite bits were the throwbacks to the original fairy tale. Not the saccharine Disney version with the singing mice that, I’m going to admit, I own and love and will defend to the death, but the Grimm version, which is decidedly more bloody.
I’m a sucker for all things fairy tale, and will most definitely be reading whatever else of Maguire’s I can get my hands on. I just might not be buying it new from the store, at least, not until my wealthy prince comes.