Gregory Maguire's Wicked took one of the most universally feared and despised characters in literature and film -- the Wicked Witch of the West -- and made her sympathetic, possible to love and to want to know. In Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Maguire does the same with a villain somewhat less aggressive and despicable: one of Cinderella's ugly stepsisters.
Iris is the daughter of a grimly practical woman, a widow returning from England to her native Holland in the seventeenth century. Finding work as a housekeeper to an undiscovered painter, Iris' mother is able to provide at least the basic physical necessities for her daughters. But she is a hard woman, and Iris is ever painfully aware of her own less than lovely countenance. Even so, she is unable to fully resist developing a friendship with the artist's witty and handsome apprentice. Nor is she able to completely suppress her attraction to the truth and beauty she sees in the Master's work.
When a wealthy Dutchman commissions the painter to do a portrait of his extraordinarily beautiful and reclusive daughter, Iris's mother inveigles her way into that family's household. Iris herself is hired to befriend the odd and ethereal daughter. The Master's portrait, meant to help the Dutchman cement a business deal concerning a shipment of tulips, is breathtaking and the deal is struck, but the businessman's wife takes ill. Iris's mother tends her, but the woman soon dies. Nothing if not opportunistic, her mother gains a promise of marriage from the businessman, and Iris soon has a new and painfully lovely stepsister.
A favorite nephew of the exiled Queen Mother is indeed in town, and there is in fact a ball. But the details of the most familiar aspect of the story continue to play out in unexpected yet inevitable fashion. This Cinderella isn't all about happily ever after, although there's a little of that. Maguire's greatest triumph in Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is his ability to mimic his chosen milieu. He creates rich pictures in his readers' minds with just a few well-chosen, textured words, and certain turns of phrase feel just like you've somehow fallen into a Dutch master. Although not as light-hearted as Wicked could be at times, Confessions is nearly as entertaining and quite as good.