Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Reading in Retrospect: My favorite book by Gregory Maguire

By popular demand (or, well, because Kristi asked about it), this Nostalgia Post is about my favorite of the three Gregory Maguire books that I've read: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (in case you hadn't already gathered which book it was from the picture of the cover).

Here is a case where the blurbs do the book justice and don't talk it up more than it deserves. Take the quote attributed to the Nashville Tennessean: “A tale so movingly told that you will say at the end of the first reading, ‘It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book this good.’ ” Or from the Detroit Free Press: “An arresting hybrid of mystery, fairy tale, and historical novel...” And, further, with Booklist, saying, “Highly absorbing... Maguire’s precise, slightly archaic language... sweeps readers through this mysterious and fascinating story.”

This novel takes the original Cinderella fairy tale and styles it so that the entire story is completely plausible and could have actually happened in real life. There is absolutely no magic involved (though plenty of imagination and intrigue), but towards the end the Cinderella character (Clara) makes up some nonsense to appease her sleepwalking stepmother, using parts of the magic in the original story (the pumpkin coach, the fairy godmother).

The book opens with Margarethe and her two daughters traveling from England back to Holland where Margarethe was born. Margarethe’s husband Jack Fisher was killed by an angry mob in England and, having no family left there, Margarethe and her daughters, Iris (younger and incredibly plain) and Ruth (who is mentally somewhat slow, and physically large and ox-like), left Harwich to find Margarethe’s grandfather in Haarlem, using their last bit of money to pay for their passage. Of course, when they arrived, they found that the grandfather was dead and gone, leaving them to either beg for charity or find a job for Margarethe as quickly as possible. They managed to meet a charitable and somewhat eccentric painter named Luykas Schoonmaker, better known as the Master, who gives them a temporary position.

Not many days later a man named Heer van den Meer calls on the Master to inquire about a commission, and when he finds out that Iris speaks both Dutch and English and is about the same age as his daughter, he decides he wants Margarethe, Iris and Ruth in his household in order to teach English to, and be a companion for, his daughter. Van den Meer’s daughter Clara, though very beautiful, is quite reclusive and is not allowed outside the garden walls surrounding their house. It takes her a while to warm up to Iris but she finally does, in the best way she knows how.

An interesting slant to the story is the presence of a number of painters and others with creative talent. The book delves into the way things are seen with an artistic eye, which I found a curious coincidence, as right after I read this book I picked up My Name Is Asher Lev (which deals intensely with the same theme) for book club. Confessions also reminded me quite a bit of Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, if only for the Dutch setting and the painterly milieu. I think a reader who enjoyed one will also like the other.

I just found out today that Confessions was made into a movie in 2002. Apparently it was a pretty big flop, as netflix doesn't even list it. Even so, I kind of wish I could see for myself. Have you seen the movie, or even heard of it?


Lyd-ee-ah said...

I didn't know it was made into a movie?? weird.

Kathy said...

Just realized it was a TV movie, so no wonder we've never heard of it. But check it out here on imdb. And apparently you can watch the entire thing on youtube?? Haven't tried it myself, but it's supposed to be here on youtube.

Kristi said...

I had no idea that it was Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister you were talking about in your previous Maguire post! It seems like we have pretty similar taste in books.

I didn't realize there was a movie. I really enjoyed this book but I read it about six years ago, so the movie might be fun to check out.

Kathy said...

Kristi--I think you are right, that we have similar taste in books! If you get a chance to watch the movie, let me know what you think of it.

Jessica Hill said...

I had no idea this was a movie. And although I'm a big fan of Gregory Maguire, this is one of only a couple of his books that I haven't had a chance to read yet. Thanks for reminding me to get on it! :)

Nymeth said...

I loved Girl with a Pearl Earring, loved Wicked, and love fairy tale retellings. So really, I need to get my hands on this asap.

Kathy said...

Jessica and Ana, I think you will both love it!

The Book Whisperer said...

Girl With a Pearl Earring is one of my favourite books ever - I had never even heard of this one but naturally I will now have to check it out and no doubt add it to Mt. TBR!

Kathy said...

Haha, Mt. TBR! That's a good name for it! Mine is more like the Leaning Tower of TBR, I think. It would be much safer if I could find a shelf on which to store them normally.

I will look forward to hearing what you think of this one!