As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I love fairy tales. I love re-imaginings of familiar stories, I love completely new stories that capture the feel of the old ones, I love stories that riff on the originals without retelling them, I love stories that use fairy tales and folklore as a framing device. Tracy Barrett’s The Stepsister’s Tale is a solid addition to the first category. It’s Cinderella from the point of view of one of the “ugly” stepsisters, and among other things, it challenges the core premise of the original: the idea that beauty is skin-deep.
Jane and Maude Halsey live in a crumbling mansion with their beloved mother, who has never quite come to terms with just how far her fortunes have fallen. Because they are ladies, she refuses to let the girls plant a garden—they’re allowed to keep goats and chickens because making cheese and collecting eggs are hobbies, not work—so the larder is never very full, there’s never any money coming in, and most of the house is unusable, if not downright dangerous. When she comes home from town in a fancy carriage with her new husband and their new stepsister, the girls know that life is about to change forever, and they hope it’s for the better.
It’s not. Their new stepfather is arrogant and unfair; their new stepsister is spoiled, petulant and snobby. (Fans of Mary Downing Hahn’s classic Wait Till Helen Comes will recognize Isabella as a direct descendant of the Ultimate Pill of a Stepsister, Heather.) After Harry’s inevitable death—he’s so hateful that I was rooting for something more dramatic than a fever, but alas—it is ultimately revealed that he not only has no fortune, but died in debt, and there’s nary a bibbiti-bobbiti-boo in sight...
In her exploration of beauty and appearances, Barrett does more than simply trot out that old “Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover” line. Yes, the prince is extremely handsome, and yes, he turns out to be, like Prince Humperdinck, a “miserable, vomitous mass,” but it’s in Jane and Maude that the book shines. Because, yes, they turn out to be beautiful…but not in that cliched take-off-their-glasses-and-let-down-their-hair way. Instead, their looks simply don’t conform to their culture’s current ideals of beauty, and so, most people—including themselves—view them as unattractive.
Thankfully, Barrett doesn’t indulge in any finger-wagging or moralizing: She lets the story speak for itself, and leaves it up to the readers to pick up the idea nugget and run with it. Supporting and complementing the Outer Beauty theme is another non-didactic (though somewhat black-and-white) thread about economic class, nobility of family name versus nobility of personal character, and about the pride and satisfaction that can arise from physical labor.
Kirkus gave The Stepsister’s Tale a starred review, and while I wouldn’t go THAT far—the romance wasn’t particularly satisfying (or even necessary, for that matter); the prince is a two-dimensional twit; and the various attitude adjustments were almost cartoonishly sudden—it’s got loads more strengths than weaknesses, and is, as I said, a solid read.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or running the show at her local library, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while rewatching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.