Stepsister, Jennifer Donnelly – Book Review

Hello Humans! Are we done with retellings yet? It certainly feels like that period of time where everything was a retelling is drawing to a close, I wonder what the next trend will be? Well, because nothing is ever truly gone, I have another retelling for you today. I say retelling – more of an unofficial sequel. Stepsister, unsurprisingly, is written from the perspective of one of the ‘so-called’ ugly sisters from Cinderella. As someone who quite often thinks that anti-heroines get a bad rap in fairytales I was excited to start this one – and a little trepidatious too!

Stepsister

Goodreads Summary:

Isabelle should be blissfully happy – she’s about to win the handsome prince. Except Isabelle isn’t the beautiful girl who lost the glass slipper and captured the prince’s heart. She’s the ugly stepsister who’s cut off her toes to fit into Cinderella’s shoe … which is now filling with blood.

When the prince discovers Isabelle’s deception, she is turned away in shame. It’s no more than she deserves: she is a plain girl in a world that values beauty; a feisty girl in a world that wants her to be pliant.

Isabelle has tried to fit in. To live up to her mother’s expectations. To be like her stepsister. To be sweet. To be pretty. One by one, she has cut away pieces of herself in order to survive a world that doesn’t appreciate a girl like her. And that has made her mean, jealous, and hollow.

Until she gets a chance to alter her destiny and prove what ugly stepsisters have always known: it takes more than heartache to break a girl.

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You know what? That summary doesn’t even nearly do this book justice. Because this book does something that I honestly didn’t expect. So often in ‘villain redemption’ retellings the way they choose to go is to show it was all a misunderstanding and really they were lovely all along and it was the heroine (in this case Ella) who was trash all along. In this case, it’s never in doubt that Isabelle and her sister and mother were awful to Ella and the story told isn’t one of re-writing but one of redemption. The thing that tends to bother me about this kind of story is that we’re often expected to forgive the ex-villain their past wrongs and move on with them as the protagonist without too much bother. There’s usually a good amount of ‘oh but they had a really hard time in childhood’ thrown in there. Perhaps I’m not as forgiving of a person as I ought to be, but I find it difficult to just go along with a redeemed character unless I feel as though they truly have changed. I thought that this book did a really good job of combining an explanation for why the stepsisters were so horrible alongside a real journey of learning, growing and truly repenting. It makes the whole character arc so much more believable and impactful – this may have the feel of a fairytale but it takes more than magic to fix everything that has happened.

I mentioned the feel of a fairytale, which is another thing I think this book did really well. So often people try to capture the language of fairytales and everything ends up feeling pretentious and false. What this book does is it takes some of the hallmarks of fairytales, such as the rule of three and the idea of fate vs chance but manages to make the language, particularly the dialogue of the characters, feel very real and very accurate to the intended time period (if not the setting – but my French isn’t good enough to read all the dialogue in French!).

There is romance in this story, which I don’t want to dwell on for too long because I think you should experience it for yourself, but let me just say that it is incredibly sweet and I thought it was a nice addition to the story as a whole.

I thought that the sibling relationship between Isabelle and her sister Tavi was well done also, Tavi is a mathematician and a scientist – but somehow this book manages to steer clear of the ‘she’s the girl who’s into maths so she’s the nerd and she’s into nerd things’ kind of feeling – it’s just what she’s interested in. I liked how the relationship between the two girls fluctuated throughout the book – I’ve never had a sister but it certainly felt like an accurate sibling relationship.

Overall, I think this is a really strong story. Maybe too much emphasis is put on one particular cheese – you have to read it to find out – but I still had a great time reading it. It’s a lot of short chapters so would be perfect for someone looking for something quick to read or someone who likes to block out their reading and do just a little each day. While at times it can feel a bit ‘feminism 101’ I think it would be a valuable starting point for wider conversations about beauty and self-worth among young people, particularly young women.

My rating: 4/5 stars

I received a free digital advanced review copy of this book from the publisher. All opinions are my own.

Stepsister published May 15th!

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What say you? What are some of your favourite villain redemption stories?

J

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