This story begins where the familiar one ends – with two ugly stepsisters, each rejected by the prince, each missing pieces of a foot in a last, desperate effort to fit themselves into a shape that isn’t their own, and a life they only think they should want.
Isabelle, Tavi, and Ella used to be friends, like sisters are, until they realized that the world, and their mother, saw them in very different lights. With moonbeam hair and a quiet smile, and a little help from the fairy queen, Ella is destined to sit on a throne, despite all her stepmother’s maneuverings. Isabelle, more interested in riding her wild stallion Nero in the fields with her best friend Felix, reading about famous generals, and fighting pirate battles with a mop handle for a sword than she is in dresses, parties, and flirtations, and Tavi, who rarely emerges from her beloved books, numbers, and scientific experiments, have never fit the the mold of what their mother, and the village, believes girls should be. Girls like Isabelle are too hungry, too fierce, and too strong. Girls like Isabelle are destined for dark endings in grim tales. Girls like Isabelle are not meant to be at all. So when the prince comes to the door, searching for a girl to make his queen, Maman orders Isabelle to lock Ella away while they try on the shoe. Already having cut away so many pieces of their hearts to become who they think they have long been told they should be, it is, really, no more difficult to cut off a heel or some toes. We, of course, know how the story ends – Ella is freed and her lovely foot fits the dainty slipper perfectly – but what becomes of the stepsisters?
Her family outcasts, decried by all for their ugliness, Isabelle knows that, in trying to reshape herself into someone she is not, she has become what everyone calls her – ugly. Still, she does her best to keep things going for her mother and sister – shopping, gathering eggs, caring for their one remaining old horse, Martin, and protecting what little they have left. But war looms close on the horizon – a marauding army draws closer to her village every day, led by bloodthirsty general Volkmar. Lovely Queen Ella works to spirit away orphans to safe houses, while the prince fights in the fields. Refugees and wounded soldiers fill the roads, and Isabelle does not know what she, only a girl, an ugly stepsister, can do. But with a little help from a wish, a quest, new friends, Fate, Chance, a fairy queen, and the lost pieces of her heart, she begins to believe that perhaps being beautiful is more than what everyone has always told her it is.
Fairy tale retellings are some of my absolute favorite books to read, and Jennifer Donnelly’s Stepsister did not disappoint! Isabelle is one tough cookie, and I loved how everyone from the fairy tale is fully rounded out into real people with many faults – even the lovely Ella (and the prince even gets a name that isn’t Charming!). There are new characters and old, an age-old battle between Chance and Fate, some seriously smelly cheese, brave steeds, daring deeds, pearl-stealing monkeys, a lot of cabbage, and plenty of magic to go around. If you love Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles, binge-watched Once Upon a Time on Netflix, or can’t stop singing “Into the Woods,” then this one’s for you!