Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

Review by Shanleigh Klassen

Scholastic Inc., Scholastic Press, 14 May 2019

352 pages, hardcover, $23.99 CAD, 978-1-33826-846-1

Ages 12+, Grades 7-12

Young Adult, Fantasy

This is a dark tale. A grim tale.

It’s a tale from another time, a time when wolves waited for girls in the forest, beasts paced the halls of cursed castles, and witches lurked in gingerbread houses with sugar-kissed roofs.

That time is long gone.

But the wolves are still here and twice as clever. The beasts remain. And death still hides in a dusting of white.

It’s grim for any girl who loses her way.

Grimmer still for a girl who loses herself.

Know that it’s dangerous to stray from the path.

But it’s far more dangerous not to.

Ugliness is a sin not easily forgiven. At least that’s Isabelle’s experience as the suffering protagonist of Jennifer Donnelly’s latest novel. Stepsister picks up right at the climatic end of the Grimm’s Cinderella, in which Isabelle’s mother persuades her daughter to mutilate herself to fit the glass slipper. When their deception is discovered, Isabelle resolves to live out the rest of her days hated and ostracized. Her whole life, she has cut away and buried the parts of herself deemed improper and ugly. Unfortunately for Isabelle, she is a plain girl with a sharp tongue in a world that values its women when they are beautiful and silent.

And so, Isabelle tries to move on. She bears the weight of her mother’s rapid mental decay and ensures her family’s survival—however meager—so her brilliant but dismissed sister Octavia can explore her scientific talents. As the jealous, spiteful, evil stepsister to the beautiful Ella, Isabelle knows the harsh treatment from her neighbours is exactly what she deserves. And while she learns to bear more than her fair share of the weight, she can’t help but wonder: wouldn’t her life be so much easier if she were pretty?

But the answer to that question is not some simpering lesson on self-love. Where a more mundane Cinderella retelling might insist Isabelle’s redemption lies in Ella’s forgiveness, Donnelly takes us on an entirely different journey. A journey that entangles the personifications of Chance and Fate in a battle for Isabelle’s future, and invokes a sinister form of magic that is equal parts striking and savage. A journey that begins bloody, that ends bloody, and where redemption is self-won through hardship, turmoil, and an inner strength forged by a harsh world. Where, perhaps, ugliness is freedom.

As Donnelly keeps each chapter scant and concise—some barely approaching a page in length—she develops a sense of anxious urgency, keeping with the tone our tricky companion, Chance, establishes in the prologue. And while this novel continues past the famed story’s “happily ever after,” Donnelly calls on a variety of fairy tale motifs and imagery to question not only the themes of Cinderella, but all fairy tales where beauty is considered the ideal standard.

Isabelle herself is a mighty character, powerful and clever even from her weary beginnings. She is a woman of contradictions, balancing between beaten-down and iron-willed, embittered and emboldened for almost the entirety of her narrative development. In the hands of a less-skilled writer, this quality might have crossed over into tedium rather quickly. For Donnelly, however, even in a world ruled by beauty, the beautiful are just as imprisoned as those deemed ugly. Isabelle’s constant wavering seems appropriately reflective of the harshly patriarchal sensibilities she, Octavia, and even Ella must endure.

Recalling the masterful writing of Frances Hardinge with the influence of Tamora Pierce’s The Song of the Lioness quartet, Donnelly has written, quite simply, an exquisite book. Decadent, grim, and evocative of fairy tales past, Stepsister is a story that signals a shift in fairy tale retellings that I eagerly welcome.

Shanleigh Klassen hails from the frozen metropolis of Winnipeg, MB, pursuing an M.A. in Children’s Literature at UBC. She is a bookseller at heart and a scholar in practice. Shanleigh loves anything with a fairy tale spin, some dark magic for flavour, and an anti-hero at the centre, but she’s not picky.

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