Fiction: “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister” by Gregory Maguire

Confessions of an Ugly StepsisterSo, true to form, Erica finished reading this before I did.  I managed to finish it not that far behind.  And then she was the one tweeting at me to get me to talk, because hi, my name is Alaina and not only am I Pinky, but I’m Pinky la procastinatór.

(Um, I should apologize right now for two things: Numero Uno, yet again, if y’all are here from NYC Bookworm, I’m the Jesse Pinkman of the group. [HA! PINKY! *PLEASE* TELL ME THAT WAS INTENTIONAL, VINCE GILLIGAN!]  Numero Dos: I am struggling with a tremendous need to finish Breaking Bad.  I know I can finish season 4 tonight, and then between Netflix and OnDemand I could will — will, watch the series finale at the same time as the rest of the country.  Because I’ll be damned if I’m going to be left behind when everyone else is vomiting over themselves at the fallout.  Uh, anyway.  The reason for the apology: Jesse and Gus are currently in Mexico, and so you might find some Spanish being thrown into my thoughts.)

SO ANYWAY.  Erica and I had a really good conversation over on Twitter — well, as much as 140 characters at a time would allow — and so here is my version of events.  Also, I should mention: I know Erica has finished her review, but I am spoiler-free for that one.

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is written by Gregory Maguire, he of Wicked fame.  The main character is Iris, the younger of the two; her elder sister is named Ruth, and the story begins when their mother, Margarethe, brings them to Holland after bolting in the night out of England.  In order to make ends meet, the women end up working for The Master, a painter in Haarlem who is besieged with indecision: his heart and soul tells him to paint religious scenes, but the economy and demand is for household scenes.  The buyers of art are not looking for religious drama; they wish to put pretty pictures in their homes.

Over the course of a few weeks, the Master paints Iris with some wildflowers.  When she finally sees the painting – because Iris is drawn to the art world, for both inspiration and because subconsciously, she wants to be an artist.  Anyway, when she finally sees the Master’s work, she is horrified – he has painted her to truly reveal her ‘ugliness.’  He plans to use this work to win a commission to paint the wealthy Heer Van den Meer’s daughter, Clara.

Clara, we will soon learn, is to become Cinderella.  True to the fairy tale we all know, Margarethe insinuates herself into the van den Meer household, using Iris as a companion for Clara.  When Clara’s mother dies, after an appropriate mourning period, Margarethe marries van den Meer, and Clara, in increasing fits of depression and almost willful isolation, turns herself into Cinderella.

There is a lot I could talk about — GODDAMMIT NETFLIX, I HAVEN’T DIED, KEEP PLAYING, I’VE ONLY GOT TWO MORE EPISODES TO GO!! — sorry.  Anyway.  I could talk a lot about this book — and in true #Collaborators fashion, I can talk a lot more now that Erica and I have had our tweetversation.  (That’s a word, right?)  But since I haven’t read Erica’s review yet, I’m going to do what I do best – fly by the seat of my pants and talk about the things that interest me.

So tonight, we will have minor discussions on the following two subjects: Dutch art history, and the nature of beauty.

The Dutch Golden Age turned away from religious set pieces and statuary and turned to more mundane subjects.  Still-lifes abounded, and then with Rembrandt and Vermeer, we see more family portraits and everyday scenes.  The Master is a contemporary of Rembrandt and Vermeer, and I’ll be honest, when I first read the book cover years ago, I misread van der Meer as Vermeer, and I was almost expecting a crossover between this book and Girl With a Pearl Earring, which I can guarantee you all that I’ll be reading that book within the next few weeks.

ANYWAY.  The Dutch Golden Age tried to capture life as it truly exists.  Still lifes, portraits, not exemplifying beauty, but just showing life the way it was.  Tour through some of Rembrandt and Vermeer’s galleries online and you’ll see that while they didn’t paint unpleasant subjects, they didn’t necessarily beautify them any.

So the fact that Maguire chose to set his Cinderella story – a story with three characters who are described in unfavorable terms: one evil, the other two ugly – in a time and place that promotes realism in its art?  That is just super significant to me.

Because Maguire does make a big deal out of beauty as a concept.  We learn that Clara is startingly beautiful – so extraordinarily beautiful, that for the greater part of the book Iris believes Clara to be a changeling, not of their world.  Iris is told that she isn’t ugly, but plain.  Compared to Clara, she could be considered ugly; compared to Ruth, she is merely plain.


(although it’s not as bad as the Columbian Necktie from Hannibal)

(full disclosure – I almost typed “disgusting” as dis-GUS-ting, trying to emphasize how I would pronounce the word in my horror, but then I realized I’d make a really shitty pun, so I stopped.)

(Breaking Bad, man — what the hell happened to me?)

ANYWAY.  There are other discussions of beauty not linked to art.  There are discussions throughout the book about the consequences of beauty.  And this raises a point: in this day and age, everyone desires to be beautiful.  Speaking as a woman, I am barraged constantly by the ‘ideal’ of beauty, and ways to achieve it.  Makeup, wrinkle cream, diet, exercise, eight hours of sleep every night, drink water, don’t drink water, eat this berry, don’t eat any berries.

Everyone wants to be beautiful.  But what happens when someone becomes beautiful?  Or, what happens to the beautiful people?

The Master says:

“The true consequence of beauty — tell your mother! — is devotion.” [24]

And isn’t that the truth?  What do we do to our ‘beautiful people’?  The plain ones worship them.  We idolize them.  Iris certainly places Clara on a bit of a pedestal because of her other-ness.

Clara says:

“Oh, […] mercy, there is nothing monstrously ugly about [Iris.]  Ruth may be unpleasing, but you are merely plain.  If anything, it’s my beauty that’s monstrous, for it sweeps away any other aspect of my character.” [238]

So true!  For once we assign the category of ‘beautiful’ to anyone, so rarely do we venture to delve further into the character of that individual.  Check out a girl at a party – she’s ‘hot.’  Doesn’t matter if she’s stupid or a surgeon – the only category she receives is ‘hot.’  All other aspects of character get stripped away, for characters fictional and real.

Iris says:

“And what about the kind act, as my mother said?  My mother the crab, the irritant in the oyster, what about what she said?  The small gesture of charity?  Isn’t that sort of beauty more beautiful than any other?” [313]

Because charity is a selfless act – an act to better someone else’s life with no thought of how it would influence their own.  True grace and selflessness is more beautiful than physical beauty – it is a beauty that derives from the soul.

Three more quotes, and then the most esoteric of reviews will be over.  (PS, I can’t believe I’ve watched four episodes of Breaking Bad tonight.  What the hell happened to me?)

There is a minor character that Iris calls the Queen of the Hairy-Chinned Gypsies.  Sue me, but I like to believe that she’s also Carol’s Gypsy Woman.  (“Just like the gypsy woman said!!”)  And she says:

“Beauty has consequence, but I’m ugly as sin, so I don’t care.” [164]

Because who watches the not-beautiful?  Nobody.  And no one strips the ‘plain’ of their character; they are allowed to have other facets.

Something that has nothing to do with beauty.  When Iris apprentices herself to the Master, this is what she feels when she first starts to draw:

She assumes that skill will guide her fingertips, that shapely lines will uncoil out of the pencil the moment she starts.  Surely talent is a thing curled deeply inside, just waiting to be exercised, and at the slightest invitation it will stretch, shake itself, make itself known?

Talent, it seems, is not so insistent. [221]

God, have I felt that and wished that.  So much.  And yet writing remains elusive and hard.

My second-to-last note should hopefully tie a few things together.  Firstly, look!  I learned how to embed Tweets!  (Somedays I still feel super-new to this whole technology thing):

That was originally taken from how Erica interpreted (or, in her own words, ‘over-interpreted’) the front cover.  I admitted I didn’t give it much thought, but much like Maguire’s other works, the frontispiece can give the reader clues as to what happens in the story to readers that pay attention.  Erica interpreted the clues different from my brief glance, and I felt that these tweets tied into that discussion, and, looking back through my notes and quotes I wanted to mention, this line from the Master about his painting of Iris:

“A painting is in the eye of the beholder,” says the Master.  “You could look at the painting of Iris with wildflowers, and you could ask yourself this: Did the Master see me with repugnance, or did he see me with my own beauty?” [180]

And I absolutely love that sentiment.  I love the fluidity of art.  I love that I can look at a painting and see something, and focus on something, and the person I’m with at the museum (or reading the same book) can focus on something else, and he/she can find meaning and beauty in that one thing that I missed, because I was busy looking at this other thing.

And, in true Pinky fashion, let’s talk about one of my ADD moments:

This was a fun adventure, and I look forward to Collaborating with Erica and NYC Bookworm again!

Grade for Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister: 3 stars

(Oh hey, PS: apparently the Disney Channel made a crappy movie version of this book starring Stockard Channing as Margarethe?  If that shows up on Netflix, I smell a tie-in!)


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