A loving re-creation of a well-known fairy tale.
The story, set in the mid-1600s, begins in earnest when Olivia, the fifth Hempstead daughter, catches the eye of a local baron, who subsequently “ha[s] her in the bushes.” A few months later, when it becomes obvious that Olivia is pregnant, Lord and Lady Hempstead send her away from their grand home to hide their shame. But after the young woman dies during childbirth, her loving nursemaid, Bessie, takes the baby—named Lucinda—back to her grandparents and convinces them to let them both live in a high, secluded wing of the manor. Unfortunately, the return to the family home is a mixed blessing for young Lucinda, who’s later put to hard labor by her relatives and forced to deal with condescension and abuse from the other children. Throughout, it’s Bessie—a veritable fairy godmother—who protects and guides the young child, whom one of her half siblings derisively labels “Lucy-cinder.” If this is all starting to sound familiar, it should, because Velmans’ (Jessaloup’s Song, 2011, etc.) ingenious novel is, at its core, an origin story for Cinderella. The author says in a note that she sees her project as a kind of tardy vindication of Charles Perrault, the 17th-century French author who’s often credited as the father of the fairy tale. (Perrault himself looms large as a character in the latter parts of the book.) Many years before the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen put pen to paper, Perrault gave the world Sleeping Beauty, Mother Goose, Little Red Riding Hood, and a host of other iconic characters. So although this novel mainly pays specific homage to "Cinderella," Velmans laces the book with references to those other tales. The author builds this network with remarkable care, and although the resulting novel is a complex web of influences, it’s never a confounding one. Furthermore, she writes in a delicate, ornate prose style that has a transporting effect, bringing readers back to Perrault’s time and nestling them in a thoroughly alluring narrative.
A satisfying blend of history and myth that breathes new life into “Cinderella.”