"You are too young to know how women must collaborate or perish..."
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister on Amazon
Gregory Maguire reimagines another old fairy tale, this one in 17th-century Holland, from the point of view of Iris, a plain-looking girl with aspirations to be a painter. Her mother, Margarethe, schemes to improve the lots of Iris and her silent, simple-minded older sister Ruth, finishing a brief stint with a painting master to become first the housekeeper and then the second wife of a flower merchant. His beautiful daughter, Clara, "Cinderella," retreats into the kitchen to avoid the challenges of the outside world. She thinks of herself as a changeling, turned by outside forces from a willful, strong child into a spoiled, terribly docile, contradictory young woman -- the ultimate Feminine, trapped in her beauty.
One of the major -- and believe me, I mean major; Maguire has about as much subtlety with his themes as Marilyn Manson with a stick of eyeliner -- motifs is the portrait that Schoonmaker, the painter, completes of Clara. It's so beautiful that everyone involved with it is torn between awed love and anxious resentment. Schoonmaker himself, though proud of his accomplishment, fears that after a work so beautiful, he will never be able to complete a better one. I wonder if Maguire felt the same way about Wicked; that was a fantastic book, and this feels at certain points like a pressured follow-up. Character development sometimes seems sacrificed, especially near the end, for the purposes of the plot. Even the text seems to admit it: "[Iris] thinks she may never again be sure of why she does anything--but it seems the only thing to do." It's almost like these characters no longer fit well enough into the Cinderella story to do what is required of them, but damned if they aren't going to be forced into it anyway.
Awkwardness with character choices and slight anviliciousness aside, though, this was a totally absorbing read. I couldn't put it down after I hit the halfway point, and Iris was an extremely sympathetic character with a lot of heart, but marked by her perceived "ugliness" in ways that I found really interesting. The prose has this weird quality of right-ness to it; even though sentence by sentence I knew the style was a little stilted and affected, as a whole I thought it was fitting for the story Maguire was telling.
There's some really interesting stuff going on here with regard to beauty. Clara is shaped by it, Iris is shaped by her lack of it; men stand around watching and desiring and owning Clara's beauty with their eyes, and Iris is free to discover love on her own without becoming a commodity. All that is pretty basic stuff, but the way it happens in the novel makes it, I think, more complex because the state of every character is so constantly in flux. Margarethe tries to change her social status, Clara her beauty, etc. Although I could have done without the constant heavy-handed meditations on the role of art, I could sit around all day analyzing what this novel does with femininity.
In Summary: Recommended, but if you only have time for one deconstructed fairy tale, read Wicked instead.