Gregory Maguire,
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
(ReganBooks/HarperCollins, 1999)

As he did for the Wicked Witch of the West in Wicked, Gregory Maguire creates a haunting retelling of the story of Cinderella through the eyes of one of the stepsisters. Maguire set Wicked in the land of Oz, but he chooses to locate Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister in 17th century Holland, establishing a carefully constructed historical and psychological context for his tale.

A mother, Margarethe, and her daughters Ruth and Iris arrive in Margarethe's native Haarlem after fleeing their English home, but find that Margarethe's grandfather, with whom she hoped to take shelter, is dead and his household disbanded. She wanders the streets with her daughters, telling her tale of woe to anyone who will listen: how she and her daughters fled an angry mob which had already killed her English husband when a swamp draining project goes awry, flooding the crops. They encounter a startlingly lovely child at one of the windows who asks if Ruth is a changeling -- Ruth appears to be physically and mentally handicapped -- and gives her a toy windmill before disappearing inside the house.

Schoonmaker, a painter, takes them in, offering food and shelter in return for housekeeping, a supply of wild flowers from the meadows, and in the case of Iris, a model. It is not that Iris is physically appealing in the classical sense; rather, she is plain, sharp-nosed and wiry, and in painting her as a contrast to sprays of beautiful meadow flowers, Schoonmaker hopes to demonstrate his talent to make his fortune. By preference a painter of sacred art, Schoonmaker knows that he has to seek other outlets for his art if he is to survive in a Calvinist society, and he is successful: he is commissioned to paint the portrait of a tulip merchant's daughter, Clara van den Meer. The merchant wants Iris to be a companion to Clara, and she and her mother and sister become part of the van den Meer household.

Clara is the beautiful child that the three encountered in the beginning of the book, a sheltered and somewhat spoiled child who never leaves the house. She warms to Iris, however, who becomes a friend and confidante, and she endures the sittings with Schoonmaker whose portrait of her is intended to serve as a marketing tool for van den Meer. The portrait is a success -- this is the time of the tulip craze in Holland, when fortunes rose and fell on the passion for the oniony bulbs that produced the flowers -- but changes quickly follow.

In Maguire's novel, Clara takes to the kitchen and the ashes as a way to work out her sorrow at her mother's death, as a retreat from the world which she does not wish to enter, as a defense against Margarethe whose pretensions exceed her grasp. When Dowager Queen of France Marie de Medici comes to Haarlem to seek a painter for her portrait and a bride for her godson, Margarethe sees it as an opportunity to restore herself to glory through snaring the prince for Iris. Iris, however, has other plans: she wants to apprentice herself to Schoonmaker, and she thinks she knows of a much more suitable bride for the prince.

"Extreme beauty is an affliction" writes Maguire, and in Clara's case, it is certainly so, although that is difficult for Iris to fathom. Maguire weaves together Clara's and Iris' personalities and characters; in many ways, they are opposite sides of the same coin, but they are not polar opposites. Clara is not automatically good because she is beautiful; Iris is not necessarily wicked because she is plain. Maguire uses their personality traits subtly and effectively to create living and breathing characters who capture the reader's attention and heart.

The story is at once compelling and richly written; Maguire uses vivid images and language but does not sacrifice pace to poetry. At the core is the metaphor of the tulip: the ugly bulb from which sprouts beauty known to drive men mad. In the end, Maguire reminds us, what truly matters is what one truly sees, yet appearances can be deceiving.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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