Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Stepsister - Jennifer Donnelly

Summary:  Isabelle should be blissfully happy -- she's about to win the handsome prince.  Except Isabelle isn't the beautiful girl who lost the glass slipper and captured the prince's heart.  She's the ugly stepsister who cut off her toes to fit into Cinderella's shoe...which is now filling with blood.

When the prince discovers Isabelle's deception, she's turned away in shame.  It's not more than she deserves.  She cut away pieces of herself in order to become pretty.  Sweet.  More like Cinderella.  But that only made her mean, jealous, and hollow.  Now she has a chance to alter her destiny and prove what ugly stepsisters have always known:

It takes more than heartache to break a girl.

Evoking the darker, original version of the Cinderella story, Stepsister shows us that ugly is in the eye of the beholder, and uses Jennifer Donnelly's trademark wit and wisdom to send an overlooked character on a journey toward empowerment, redemption...and a new definition of beauty.

(Summary from book sleeve - Image from

My Review:  I'm not going to waste your time by beating around the bush.  Stepsister is ah-mazing.  It's the best kind of fairy tale retelling -- instantly captivating, achingly familiar in an original way, and graced with an unbelievably compelling message.  Go ahead and add it to your shopping list/cart or reserve it at the library.  I'll wait. ........ Are you back?  Okay, I'll elaborate.

There have been numerous versions of the Cinderella story, and a fair few that focus more on the stepsister side of things, but none have hit me quite as hard as this one did.  Stepsister was utterly riveting, with brilliant phrasing, and ominous, lyrical prose reminiscent of the old Grimm fairy tales but with a more modern message.  If I'm being perfectly honest, Connelly hooked me with the dedication, which read "To everyone who's ever felt that they're not enough" and sealed the deal with the following foreword:
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 who loses herself. Know that it's dangerous to stray from the path. But it's far more dangerous not to.
It gave me chills! The dazzling story that follows is a blend of dark, ancient magic, perilous adventure, and sweet romance, with an electrifying lesson on fairy tale feminism.  I was straight up swept away.

Stepsister is one of those rare YA fiction books that I plan to hand to my teenage daughters in the hopes that they not only enjoy the ride, but actually internalize the message.  I'm also not above buying several copies and leaving them strategically placed around the house.  There were many  times where I was so floored by the real life application of the story, I would have started highlighting if I hadn't been reading a library copy.  Isabelle's story begins rather bleakly, but her character arc is immensely empowering and laced with deep observations on human nature that might have felt out of place in a fairy tale retelling, if the book weren't so startlingly well-written.    Along the way, she learns lessons about the importance being authentic, listening to her own voice, loving herself and others, embracing her own strengths, and not letting others define or diminish her.  I can't think of anything a teen needs to hear more.

Now, I could blather on appreciatively for days, but I suspect Connelly's own words will do more to illustrate what I mean, so here are ten of my favorite quotes from the book:
History books say that kings and dukes and generals start wars.  Don't believe it.  We start them, you and I.  Every time we turn away, keep quiet, stay out of it, behave ourselves.
...cruelty never came from a place of strength; it came from the darkest, dankest, weakest place inside you.
Ella is the beauty.  You and I are the ugly stepsisters.  And so the world reduces us, all three of us, to our lowest common denominator.
Most people will fight when there is some hope of winning, no matter how slim. They are called brave.  Only a few will keep fighting when all hope is gone.  They are called warriors.  Isabelle was a warrior once, though she had forgotten it.
Here are the things girls die of: hunger, disease, accidents, childbirth, and violence.  It takes more than heartache to kill a girl.  Girls are tough as rocks., I can't make myself likable. I've tried.  Over and over. It doesn't work. If I don't like who I am, why should you?
This world, the people in it...they sort us. Put us in crates. You are an egg. You area potato.  You are a cabbage. They tell us who we are.  What we will do. What we will be. "Because they are afraid. Afraid of what we could be," Tavi said. "But we let them do it!" Hugo said angrily, "Why?"  Tavi gave him a rueful smile. "Because we're afraid of what we could be, too. 
They were not pretty, these women.  Pretty did not begin to describe them. They were shrewd.  Powerful.  Wily. Proud.  Dangerous.  They were strong.  They were brave.  They were beautiful.
Every war is different, yet each battle is the same. The enemy is only a distraction.  The thing you are fighting against, always, is yourself.
She'd listened to him.  She'd believed him.  She'd let him tell her who she was. And after him Maman, suitors, the grand duke, Cecile, the bakers wife, the villagers of Saint-Michel.  "They cut away pieces of me" she whispered in the darkness."But I handed them the knife."
There are countless more moments of solid gold wisdom...but they give away too much to share without spoiling things.  Long story short, I loved this book.  If you love fairy tale retellings or if you've ever felt less than, stuck in a situation you cannot change, or shoved into a mold of someone else's making, I highly recommend this book.

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Some battle-field violence.  A girl cuts off her toes, but it is not described.  Four or five swear words (of the B, A, and H variety). A little kissing.

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