Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

By Gregory Maguire

57,332 ratings - 3.53* vote

We have all heard the story of Cinderella, the beautiful child cast out to slave among the ashes. But what of her stepsisters, the homely pair exiled into ignominy by the fame of their lovely sibling? What fate befell those untouched by beauty ... and what curses accompanied Cinderella's looks?Set against the backdrop of seventeenth-century Holland, Confessions of an Ugly We have all heard the story of Cinderella, the beautiful child cast out to slave among the ashes. But what of her

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Book details

Paperback, 372 pages
October 3rd 2000 by William Morrow Paperbacks

(first published October 6th 1999)

Original Title
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
0060987529 (ISBN13: 9780060987527)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


I love books based on fairy tales, but it's taken me forever to really read any of Maguire's stuff. I still haven't read "Wicked." Years ago, I tried reading this book and just couldn't get into it. But with so many people telling me how great this guy is, I decided to give it another shot.

This book follows the story of Iris and Ruth, two little girls who, with their mother, flee from England after their father is murdered. Poor and begging, they have no choice but to first take a job as the housekeeper to an artist, then to a merchant of the city (I believe it's Amsterdam but not entirely sure). Ruth, the oldest, is dumb and mute and taken care of by Iris, the younger, smarter sister, who shows artistic promise but is considered plain at best and will never be a beauty.

The merchant's daughter, Clara, befriends the two young girls amidst her fear of leaving her home and her belief that she is a changeling. When her mother dies during pregnancy and Iris' and Ruth's mother steps in as matron of the household, Clara is held as nothing more than the beauty in which her stepmother will buy back her fortune. Having no interest in the outside world, especially a ball thrown by the prince's godmother, Clara makes the kitchen her domain, preferring to live with the ashes and do the housework than to travel into the regular world.

Told from the viewpoint of one of the stepsister's this tale follows the Cinderella story in a completely different way. While the stepmother could still be considered "evil", "Cinderella" and her stepsisters are actually as true sisters...even through their disagreements they love each other. Even during the hard times, the plain Iris must deal with the dumb Ruth and the neurotic Clara, yet she does with patience and care.

The writing is fairly descriptive and florid and made it hard to get going with. But once the story found it's pace, I found it to be a good read. Though I can't say it's one of my favorites, the ending touched me and I am curious to read more of this author's work.

Lauren (Shakespeare & Whisky)

“In the lives of children, pumpkins turn into coaches, mice and rats turn into men. When we grow up, we realize it is far more common for men to turn into rats.”

I enjoy Maguire's work. He combines lively characters with literary writing.

Unlike Maguire's other, wildly successful novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, this retelling leaves behind magic, instead relying on a genuine historical period and uncanny characters to imbue the novel with an unworldly tone.

Although there is no magic in the story, it manages to feel magical for the reader.

Maguire is not a newcomer to telling stories that deconstruct old narratives, and in my opinion this attempt was more successful then Wicked for several reasons.

One of my major criticisms of Wicked was the inconsistencies and underdeveloped plot arcs. This was so problematic that they changed the ending of the stage production to improve the narratives cohesiveness.

He has a much more basic plot to work with here. The benefits of a tighter narrative result in a much more satisfying novel. He is able to focus attention on his strength as a writer- complex, multifaceted exploration of character.

I never particularly liked the story of Cinderella as a child and as an adult some of the more troubling aspects of the tale became apparent. So it's no surprise that this novel is primarily occupied with female solidarity, self- preservation and conformity.

Iris is a compelling and sympathetic main character. Her relationships with her mother, sister, step- sister Clara (Cinderella), and the painter's apprentice, Casper, form the loci around which each of these issues is explored.

“No, my girl, you know nothing of how we women are imprisoned in our lives, but there are ways to determine the sentence we must serve.”

Iris' relationship with her mother is fascinating. Her mother is spiritually suffocated by her obsession with appearances and survival and it was heart rendering at times to see how this fear crippled her daughters.

“To consider what other people might say is hardly a good reason to take action or to defer it. You have your own life to live, Iris, and at its end, the only opinion that amounts to anything is that which God bestows”

Iris struggles with accepting and understanding herself and the people around her. This is not the sort of book you can passively absorb. I thought a lot about what various characters did and said and what I felt about that.

The setting and writing was a lush and richly formed tapestry. If you enjoy literary writing, you will likely appreciate it, even if the metaphors are occasionally too heavy handed.

However, one of the problems with the novel is that the characters are too difficult to love. To truly love a book I think you need to fall in love a little with at least one of the characters. There are exceptions of course, but even Silence of the Lambs has a weirdly aspirational element to our fascination with Hannibal Lecter.

The characters here felt too strange, too flawed to really admire.

In addition, the climax felt abrupt and at times elements were introduced that were a little too esoteric. The belief the girls had that Clara was a changeling was never really developed, and at times it was hard to see why certain things were included.

Despite this I would recommend it to people who enjoy more adult or literary retellings, especially if they enjoyed Wicked.

For me, it was a satisfying read.


Maguire's ability to come up with an interesting story is far better than his ability to tell the story. His writing is often a bit too labored, his symbolism too transparent, and his literary devices a bit clunky.

Like 'Wicked', 'Confessions' offers the reader a variation on a well-known story. Also like 'Wicked', 'Confessions' is not really all that much to write home about. A somewhat creative variation, but one in which many of the characters are incredibly hard to like, and the story just falls flat in the end. The epilogue reads like something that has been tacked on in order to make up for loose ends, and ultimately transforms a story that seems like it is trying to veer away from the formulaic fairy tale mold into a "happily-ever-after", problems-solved-in-the-last-five-minutes kind of thing. I wouldn't exactly call it satisfying.


I am an idiot. I did it to myself again.
After reading “Wicked” and hating it, I decided to give Gregory Maguire another go. Apparently, Maguire is my literary equivalent to the corner brick on my fireplace that I keep stubbing my toe upon, even though I know it’s there and I know it’s going to hurt.
But I picked up "Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister", thinking I had to give Maguire another try. He shows glimpses of pure genius, so I was hoping he’d be able to channel it properly. After all, how can he screw up a story about Cinderella?
Well, he can and did and in the same manner he’s screwed up his Oz stories: diarrhea of the keyboard.
I am now convinced Maguire can’t pace a story to my liking and his stories and characters are all too convoluted so that I am never sure exactly what is going on or even why I should care. I know Maguire’s deal is to show the human fault in everybody, but if I wanted that, I would watch CNN. I don’t enjoy reading books when I have to try to convince myself to like the characters when I don’t.
Not to mention, Maguire can’t get from Point A to Point B without numerous side trips through the alphabet. He needs an author's Garmin.
His plots remind me of doing a school research paper that is supposed to be 10 pages, only when you finish what you have to say, you realize it’s only four pages, so you go back and start shoveling in fluff to make it the requisite length.
Maguire’s books have the same problem. The story is OK when you get to it, but you’ve got to take waaay too many dead end side roads to get to your destination, and by the time you get there, you’re pissed off and need to take a wee, which is convenient since all I wanted to do was piss on this book anyway.


This was an easy read and an interesting take on the "Cinderella" story, but it wasn't amazing. It felt like it gave a very long build-up to a climax that was vague and unexciting and a denouement that was pretty disappointing. Only as an epilogue do we discover what happened to Iris, the main character of the book, and even then, it is brief and without many details.

Many of the ideas introduced into the storyline also felt as though they were left hanging at the end of the book. Clara, the Cinderella character, seemed a very flat character to me, although she could have been interesting if the author had developed her more.

Mostly it was disappointing to not get the completion of Caspar and Iris's relationship after the entire book leads up to it. You would think that if the story was written down by Caspar, as the epilogue explains, then we would have gotten it more from his point of view, rather than Iris's.

Overall, it was an okay read, but I'm not sure I want to read Wicked now after reading this one.


I love fairy tale retellings...especially the ones that try to be the "True" version.
Set in 17th century Holland during the Tulip craze this version of Cinderella is by far my favorite. The central character is not Cinderella (who is a spoiled brat) but Iris, the youngest of the two step-sisters.
Margarethe returns to her homeland, Holland,with her two daughters - plain Iris and simple Ruth, afer her husband is murdered in England. She becomes the housekeeper for a painter. The traditional story of Cinderella is started on its course when a wealthy tulip merchant commissions the painter to paint his beautiful daughter, Clara, with an equally beautiful new tulip (for marketing purposes). Then through a series of events (change of job, miscarriage and death) Margarethe ends up married to the tulip merchant.
Though I was not impressed by this story's Cinderella (Clara), a character I have always adored, Iris more than makes up for her as a strong and likeable heroine.
Be prepared for the twist at the end!

Laura Cavendish

I remember when I read this book for the first time. I bought it the day after it came out, because I was already obsessed with Gregory Maguire despite the fact that he had only written one other adult book at that point.

I started the novel in the morning, the day I had to take my parents to the airport in Kalamazoo. We left that evening because their flight was an early morning one. I read and read in the car, getting fairly far. When we got to the hotel and had to go to bed, I COULD NOT sleep, so I got up went in the hotel bathroom, but a towel under the door and read the rest of the book staying up until it was time for us to go to the airport around 4am.

It was FANTASTIC. I think this may be my favorite Gregory Maguire novel. I believe this is probably because it deals with artists during a fascinating period.

It constantly amazes me how well Gregory Maguire can write books from a female perspective and get it spot on, when he is not a female.


Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is way better than Wicked, not least because the characters have consistent personalities and the plot is coherent. I appreciated the sensory details and descriptions, and the various characters are original. There's a nice twist near the end which gave me a little brain jolt, and I always like that.


In the lives of children, pumpkins can turn into coaches, mice and rats into human beings. When we grow up, we learn that it’s far more common for human beings to turn into rats.

If magic was present, it moved under the skin of the world, beneath the ability of human eyes to catch sight of it.

Immortality is a chancy thing; it cannot be promised or earned. Perhaps it cannot even be identified for what it is.

It’s the place of the story, beginning here, in the meadow of late summer flowers, thriving before the Atlantic storms drive wet and winter upon them all.

So let my hands and my face make their way in this world, let my hungry eyes see, my tongue taste.

Is this the main thing that painters of portraits care about? The person on the verge of becoming someone else?

When the dawn light is coursing through the slats in the shutters at last, making thin stripes on the floor, she, tossing, decides that for every human soul there must surely be a possible childhood worth living, but once it slips by, there isn’t any reclaiming it or revising it.


This book gives a whole new view on the Cinderella, one that is completely believable. It offers a real setting(not just a land far, far away or a long time ago) and speaks of real people. It makes you think. Is beauty a gift or a curse? It offers a brave, out-of-the-ordinary heroine, one of the ugly stepsisters herself. The narrator shows you a new perspective on the Cinderella story. Perhaps the wicked stepsisters were not so wicked. Perhaps they had lives too. Perhaps their lives were actually better because they were not so beautiful. This seems to be a gift of Gregory Maguire's, to take old, well-known fairy tales, and make you question them. He can turn the clear antagonist of the story into a most wonderful, good protagonist. It makes you look deep, past looks, past what everyone else tells you.