Author: Jennifer Donnelly
Publication Date: May 2019
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Copy: Courtesy of the Publisher
I am a sucker for a fairy tale, always have been, and that makes me an even bigger sucker for fairy tale retellings and re-imaginings.
The premise of Stepsister intrigued me from the very beginning and the cover is just gorgeous.
There is a stack of books on my desk that I need to be reading for book club, there’s also a stack of books that I have read for book club and am yet to review. But I picked this one up a couple of days ago for something a little different and have been slowly reading it a chapter or two at a time. Until tonight, when I had a long quiet evening at home and planned to do all my review catch up. But then the children were awake later than planned so I read a couple of chapters while I waited for them to settle, and then it was 1am and the book was finished.
One of the things that I really loved about this one is that the chapters are extremely short, and that makes it much easier to pick it up for short bursts in between other chores.
We all know the story of Cinderella and the stepsisters, the ball, the prince and the glass slipper. Cinderella gets the prince and the happy ever after but what happens to the rest of the family.
Fairy tales are hundreds of years old and the much earlier versions are a lot darker than the musical Disney movies many of us picture when we think fairy tales. Stepsister is certainly a nod to a much darker Cinderella tale than the one I picture when I think of Cinderella.
The story opens in a palazzo with a maiden, a mother and a crone making maps by candlelight. Fate has our lives all mapped out and she wants us to believe that mere mortals are powerless to change our destiny. The Marquis de la Chance has a lot more faith and believes that if only they are given the chance, the opportunity to see that there might be another way then they do have the power to prove their future isn’t written in stone.
Stepsister is a tale infused with magic, not the parlour trick kind but a magic older than time. The magic of fairies, magic born of desire and powered by love.
The tagline on the cover sums it up beautifully. Stepsister is a novel that demonstrates to us time and again that Beauty isn’t always Pretty. The first time Isabelle meets the fairy queen she says her hearts deepest desire is to be pretty because life is always easier when you’re pretty. Over the course of the novel we see how pretty isn’t everything and when we find the courage to be our true selves that beauty is ever more powerful.
We pick up after the glass slipper when Ella has been swept away by her prince and the stepsisters are left behind with Maman in their small village where everyone now knows what happened. They know about the cruelty Ella faced and the lengths the stepsisters went to try and convince the Prince it was them at the ball in the glass slipper.
The villagers have turned against them, Maman is becoming increasingly confused and Isabelle, the younger stepsister, finds herself in the midst of a wager between Fate and Chance to see if she can change her destiny.
Isabelle and Octavia are Ella’s stepsisters and they are repeatedly referred to as ugly stepsisters and it seems to me that’s more a reference to their personality than their looks. They don’t shine as bright as Ella for sure but it’s more that their pursuits aren’t feminine and their behaviour towards Ella was cruel and unkind. It seemed to me that they may have been plain rather than pretty but not physically ugly.
Their lack of femininity is what makes it hard to find them husbands because they aren’t content with parasols, silks and slippers. They don’t want embroidery and dances. They are courageous and intelligent, Octavia wants maths and science and experiments while Isabelle wants action and adventure.
It has been drummed into them that their desires are wrong, their pursuits diminish them and they will never be enough unless they conform to the traditional roles of a woman. Stepsister sets them on a path that will test them.
I was entranced. I loved the sisters, I loved their journeys and I loved that Donnelly illustrated the issue of things not being what they seem. You may be jealous of someone’s attributes because you think that you are lacking but you can never see yourself through someone else’s eyes so you don’t know the strengths they see in you.
Stepsister is about learning to block out the voices telling you who you should be and what you should be so that you can hear the voice within you telling you who you can be.
There were times the story seemed to drag a little but for the most part I love the pacing and I definitely loved the story arc.
You can’t change the past but Stepsister reminds us that with hope, courage and determination we can change the shape of the life in front of us.
Stepsister is available now through Allen & Unwin and where all good books are sold.