I love a good retelling, and I’m a real softie for one that tries to rehabilitate traditional villains. Add that to my interest in the Ugly Sisters (my thesis topic looked at their history from Cupid and Psyche onwards!), and I really couldn’t resist Stepsister…
Book: Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly
Read before: No
Ownership: Proof copy sent by publisher for review. All opinions my own.
Stepsister starts with the classic scene from the end of Cinderella – the ugly sisters mutilating their feet in order to fit in the shoes. It’s a hell of a start to a book, because you instantly get a feel for Isabelle’s character as she panics and ultimately accedes to the orders of her bullying mother – you thought you knew how the story went, but straightaway the author is showing that it’s a lot more nuanced. We follow Cinderella (Ella)’s stepsisters and their mother in the aftermath of the fairy tale – Ella is queen, and the three women are outcasts from society now that everyone knows about their behaviour. But Isabelle can’t let things stay this awful, and so she embarks on a quest to win a favour from the Fairy Queen to sort out all their lives – to become pretty.
Please don’t think, however, that this is a shallow story promoting ‘pretty’ as the best thing a girl can be. It’s not, by a long shot. It’s deeply feminist and takes a hard look at the ‘pretty=good’ trope within fairytales. The most striking thing about this story is how much Isabelle grows as a person. Yes, that’s sort of the plot, but you rarely see emotional growing-up shown in such a realistic and vital way. It’s not a straightforward process for her; she takes steps backwards as well as forwards, and sometimes she feels like giving up. She’s strong because she decides that she has to overcome herself, not because it’s convenient for the story. I was mentally cheering for her to realise all the good things about herself – I found it really powerful.
This is one of the only retellings I’ve read that has kept the fairy tale feel throughout, rather than taking the story and bending it into another genre. Though it’s a full-length book, it has that slightly whimsical tone of a true fairy tale, which I was really impressed by. It feels natural, and really helps the story feel magical even when it deals with the day to day life of the girls. I loved the introduction of the aloof, formidable Fairy Queen instead of a rotund, bumbling fairy godmother; and I loved the overall framework of the three Fates battling the personification of Chance. It’s a metaphor that works to show Isabelle overcoming the cards she’s been dealt by believing in herself, but it’s also a really great piece of world-building that left me really intrigued by the magic involved. I’d love to see a whole series like this, with Chance trying to change the destiny of other fairy tale characters. I’d have those on auto-buy!
This is a five-cat read for me, for sure, and I’d recommend it to any fairy tale lovers!