One additional delight that came of my visit to AuntLO and UncleDO earlier this month was that they were culling their book collection, and invited me to carry off any of the discards that I wanted. Among the novels I took from the pile was Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, by Gregory Maguire. I had read his Wicked and felt rather take-it-or-leave-it (I haven't seen the musical, how culturally out-of-touch I am sometimes!), but was willing to give him another chance.
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister was ever-so-much-more compelling!
First off, I was a sucker for Tracy Chevalier's Girl With a Pearl Earring when I read it a couple years ago, set in the city and household of the painter Vermeer in 17th-century Holland. Confessions places its retelling of the Cinderella story in that milieu and time-frame (well, not Vermeer's house, but definitely the Holland of Vermeer and Rembrandt), such that the household details felt familiar. So too did the exploration of women as artistic subjects, and as apprentice artists themselves.
Maguire goes in deep on the themes of ugliness and beauty and art; on perception and reality and the places where perception fails. His retelling of the Cinderella story is full of surprises and yet makes perfect sense as to how HIS version might have been twisted into the fairy tale we know today (as if he weren't the one doing the twisting!)
So why does this rate an Elvis Sighting?
Well, it's the older (ugly) stepsister Ruth. Most of the book is told from the perspective of the younger (ugly) stepsister Iris, who is clever and thoughtful but pinched and plain in physical appearance. The older stepsister, when first described, is "a solid thing, already more than adult size, but simple. A pendulum of spit swings out and makes a tassel. Iris reaches and wipes Ruth's mouth."
Ruth doesn't talk. Ruth perseverates on a little toy given her by the ethereally-lovely girl who will one day be her (beautiful) stepsister. "Is she a changeling?" the exquisite Clara/Cinderella asks.
The word "autism" would have been a complete anachronism to 17th-century Holland, and Maguire doesn't make any such diagnosis. But I heard spectrum echoes. (Is that perception on my part, or a place where perception fails?)
Ruth is essential to the plot.
And I must confess...
that I can't say any more, because I simply cannot spoiler this book. GAH!