‘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?
Thank you to Readers First and Hot Key Books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
“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.
I’ve realised I have a thing for villains. And that’s what drew me to this book. Stepsister is a Cinderella retelling with a feminist twist. It’s a take on what happens after Cinderella’s happily ever after, but from the point of view of her stepsister Isabelle. I liked the dark fairy tale vibes this book evokes. Just like the Grimms’ version, the story opens with the stepsisters, Isabelle and Octavia, mutilating their feet to fit into the glass slipper. It’s a stark reminder of the saying “Beauty is pain”. The plan to deceive the prince doesn’t work and Isabelle, Octavia and their mother end up as social pariahs in their French village.
I warmed to both Isabelle and Octavia. Isabelle is brave, free-spirited and adventurous, whilst Octavia likes conducting experiments and solving equations. Unfortunately, the society in which they live in does not appreciate these qualities. They are expected to be demure, ladylike and above all beautiful. It’s something which still rings true today, as women in particular are judged only on their looks.
Isabelle gains considerable character growth throughout the novel. She realises that she will never be “good” like her stepsister Ella. Instead, she can only be true to herself. And that is more than enough. Although both Isabelle and Tavi are frequently labelled as “ugly” by the other characters, I found that this wasn’t really the case. Stepsister cleverly conveys how beauty is only skin deep. It’s true that Isabelle was mean to Ella, but she wants to redeem herself.
What makes this retelling unique is Chance and Fate. I enjoyed the personification of these two characters who battle it out to shape Isabelle’s life path. The play in particular that Chance puts on for Isabelle is brilliant. Another fantasy element is the interesting interpretation of the fairy godmother who aids Isabelle. There are various strands and subplots, with some romance as well as humour. I particularly liked the last 100 pages of the book which is action-packed.
Stepsister is a well-written and dark retelling. In this story, Isabelle is no longer a one-dimensional character. Instead she goes on a difficult journey and becomes a force to be reckoned with. Jennifer Donnelly’s book has a great message: don’t let narrow definitions of beauty define you.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐