Love fractured fairy tales? Love fairy tales for older readers? Then you'll love "The Stepsister's Tale" by Tracy Barrett. It's a beautiful and extremely clever retelling of "Cinderella" from the point of view of the stepsister, who (no spoiler here) really isn't that wicked. Not at all.
What's brilliant about Barrett's retelling is how she perfectly fits in all the points from the original Cinderella story, even including the younger stepsister's gluttony and the toe and heel cutting from the original rather grim Grimm tale. As I said, it's really rather brilliant. It's also quite a delightful read.
Isabella becomes Cinder-Ella during the bitter cold winter when there is no wood left to keep the family warm, and she sits in the cinders of the fire trying to keep warm. Her stepsisters, Jane and Maude, and her stepmother were from an illustrious family whose wealth was squandered away by the man their mother married for his good looks. He drank and gambled away all the money, and left them to a life of hardship in the grand manor that is now falling apart.
The daughters do the cleaning, the milking, and the mending and make the cheese that keeps them alive. The girls collect the eggs and feed the chickens. Their mother lives pretending that they are still noble and only doing the work that is proper for "ladies." She refuses to see their calloused hands and their patched clothing. She refuses to see the wrack and ruin of their home.
When she returns from a visit to the city with a husband and his daughter (Isabella), things look like they might get better. The new stepfather dotes on his spoiled daughter and buys her a pony and carriage. He begins repairs on the house. But there is evidence that all is not as it appears to be when he refuses to pay the workmen for their work and he is evasive about his money.
He falls ill and dies, after which it's learned that he has no money, only debts. Yet Isabella remains unpleasant almost to the end of the story. Or does she? Misunderstandings and secrets cause problems, but the ending is just as happy and sweet as a fairy tale -- almost. Does Ella marry the prince? Is there magic in the tale? You'll have to read the story to find out.
Barrett raises some genuinely valid issues that would make this a great mother-daughter book club book or book for classroom reading. What makes a person "noble," is it breeding or just plain kindness and compassion? Who are the noble ones in the story -- the actual wealthy people and the prince or the poor neighbors who share what little they have?
Please note: This review is based on the advance review copy provided by the publisher, Harlequin Teen, for review purposes.
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