Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly
Published by Allen & Unwin
Genres: Fairy Tale, Retelling, Young Adult
Source: Allen & Unwin NZ
Find at Allen & Unwin NZ
'In an ancient city by the sea, three sisters - a maiden, a mother, and a crone - are drawing maps by candlelight. Sombre, with piercing grey eyes, they are the three Fates, and every map is a human life . . .'
Stepsister takes up where Cinderella's tale ends. We meet Isabelle, the younger of Cinderella's two stepsisters. Ella is considered beautiful; stepsister Isabelle is not. Isabelle is fearless, brave, and strong-willed. She fences better than any boy, and takes her stallion over jumps that grown men fear to attempt. It doesn't matter, though; these qualities are not valued in a girl. Others have determined what is beautiful, and Isabelle does not fit their definition. Isabelle must face down the demons that drove her cruel treatment of Ella, challenge her own fate and maybe even redefine the very notion of beauty . . .
Cinderella is about a girl who was bullied; Stepsister is about the bully. We all root for the victims, we want to see them triumph. But what about the bullies? Is there hope for them? Can a mean girl change? Can she find her own happily ever after?
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The Story: Stepsister
I don’t know if I’m going to be able to explain this story very well, but I’m going to give it a go.
You all know the story of Cinderella, the beautiful girl, orphaned save for a stepmother and two ugly stepsisters. A fairy godmother’s wave of a wand gives Ella the chance to go to the ball where she meets the prince … and you know the rest of the tale. But what about those ‘ugly’ stepsisters? What happened to them when Ella went off to the palace?
Stepsister tells the tale of Isabelle, one of the sisters, and her bitter, jealous heart, as she mutilates her foot to try and fit into the slipper, is rejected and has to watch her perfect stepsister win the heart of the prince. Isabelle has to leave her home with her sister, Octavia, and mother, so she moves in with the neighbours, and works on the farm. As well as being displaced and thrown into harsh field work, Isabelle tries to figure out why her childhood friend Felix left her, and how to avoid the coming war in France.
“Once upon always and never again, in an ancient city by the sea, three sisters worked by candlelight.”
As well as following Isabelle’s story, the book has three other main characters: Fate, one of the sisters mentioned in the above quote; Chance, a loud, happy-go-lucky type character with a troop of colourful characters that travel with him; and Tanaquil, the fairy queen. Fate and her sisters (not really in the story) create maps of people’s lives, determining how they will play out, with all the highs and lows. Chance makes a bet with Fate that he can change Isabelle’s impending failure of a life, post Ella, and so the two, Fate and Chance, are interwoven throughout the story as they try to impact Isabelle’s life and the decisions she makes. Tanaquil the fairy queen grants wishes, but Isabelle’s wish – to be pretty – comes with homework; she must find the three things that have broken her heart, mend them, and then Tanaquil will grant her her wish.
As Isabelle tries to figure out what the three things are, with perfect, pure, beautiful Ella as a reference point, Chance and his group of actors, magicians, and monkeys attempt to lead Isabelle down a better path, and Fate tries to keep on her on the path to darkness.
“This is a dark tale. A grim tale.
It’s a tale from another time, a time when wolves waited for girls in the forest, beasts paced the halls of cursed castles, and witches lurked in gingerbread houses with sugar-kissed roofs.
That time is long gone. But the wolves are still here and twice as clever. The beasts remain. And death still hides in a dusting of white.
It’s grim for any girl who loses her way.
Grimmer still for a girl her loses herself.
Know that it’s dangerous to stray from the path.
But it’s far more dangerous not to.”
My thoughts on Stepsister
This is not a lovely, happy fairy tale. It’s much more in line with that of The Brother’s Grimm and their original tale of Cinderella – with the cutting up of feet to fit the slipper etc. But it’s an absolutely wonderful tale and I really enjoyed it.
The plot of Stepsister was really interesting. It was a mix of politics and civil war in France, forging your own paths, family and the complications they bring, lost loves, the lines between what is predestined for your life and what you can change, and figuring out that you don’t need to be like everyone else, that those you think have it all really don’t; they’re just as flawed and hurt as you are. Isabelle and her childhood friend Felix loved a book about old war generals and leaders of armies, including Alexander the Great, and this is woven throughout the book, too.
It was really fun having Fate and Chance as characters within the ‘main’ story line, and how they interacted with Isabelle’s life. Isabelle’s hurt and jealousy towards Ella (who isn’t really in the story at all, because these events all happen after she’s moved to the palace with the prince, now King) really impacts every part of her life; all she wants to be is pretty like her stepsister, then everything else will fall into place. Felix is sweet character who thinks she’s beautiful the way she is, Maman (the mother) is this horribly controlling character who just needs to leave well enough alone, and Octavia is a science-savvy chick who is quite happy just reading and learning.
Stepsister reads like a fairy tale. Like a typical fairy tale. And it’s wonderful. When I first started reading I heard the voice over to the opening scenes of a Disney movie; it’s that kind of magical, fairy tale sound. The writing is beautiful and there were so many quotes that I had to add to Goodreads and save. The morals of the story are so well set out and again, beautifully written. It also had a decent amount of humour throughout.
“The feeling that you want to own someone body and soul, spirit them away from everyone else, have them all to yourself forever and ever and ever,” Hugo said dreamily. “It’s called love.”
“No, it’s called kidnapping,” said Tavi.”
If you like fairy tales, re-tellings, or re-imagining of fairy tales, twists on characters who have always been known as the bully, then pick up Stepsister and give it a go. You won’t be disappointed.
“Fairy tales give it to us straight. They tell us something profound and essential – that the woods are real, and dark, and full of wolves. That we will, at times, find ourselves hopelessly lost in them. But these tales also tell us that we are all that we need, that we have all we need – guts, smarts, and maybe a pocketful of breadcrumbs – to find our way home.” – Jennifer Donnelly, in the acknowledgements.
Have you read Stepsister? What did you think?
I received this book from Allen and Unwin NZ, in exchange for a review. This in no way impacts my thoughts, and all opinions are my own. Thank you for the copy review, A&U!