Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

I will probably get a barrage of hate mail when I say this, but I kinda thought Wicked by Gregory Maguire sucked. I can’t really say why, other than I’ve never really thought of The Wizard of Oz as a fairy tale. It was, I don’t know, too American somehow? For me, the trappings of a fairy tale require a sense of magical realism that, for all that it was set in Oz and the Emerald City, etc., TWOZ just did not have. Maybe it was the lack of a true princess trapped in a castle somewhere. Maybe it was the insertion of the Wizard who ends up being from Dorothy’s time and kills the sense of fantasy, or the fact that her adventure was just a dream. And Maguire’s first book didn’t do anything to alleviate the humdrum nature of the kingdom of Oz.

Anyway, most everyone tends to associate Maguire with Wicked, which tells the story of the Wizard of Oz from the sympathetic viewpoint of the Wicked Witch of the West. It got turned into a major Broadway musical and cemented Maguire’s reputation as a writer who turns traditional fairytales onto their heads. However, he’s written a few more books in the same vein which are, in my opinion, far better, such as Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. As you can probably guess, this book takes the classic fairy tale trope of Cinderella and twists it so that it’s told from the viewpoint of one of the two ugly stepsisters. It’s done magnificently well and I’d have to say that this book is my favorite of Maguire’s fairy tale remixes.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Iris (or is it?), one of the daughters of Margarethe Fisher, who is escaping an angry religious mob in England who killed her husband Jack, the father of Iris and her sister Ruth, who is “simple.” They arrive in 17th-century Haarlem, in Holland, where Margarethe begins working as a housekeeper for the artist Master Schoonmaker. Iris grows fond of the Master and when he expresses a wish to paint her, she demurs at first because she knows she is plain and ugly. The Master begins to show her the basics of painting and they begin an ongoing dialogue that weaves throughout the book, taking on the nature of what exactly constitutes beauty and ugliness, and the relativity of both those concepts.

It’s true, if you think about it. What one person considers ugly can be considered beautiful, and vice versa. There are, I admit, certain universal qualities that render something or someone beautiful, but scratch the surface of any culture or time periods’ idea of beauty, and it is often dated, superficial and not considered beautiful at all by numerous other cultures. And Klara Van den Meer, who later becomes Iris and Ruth’s stepsister, possesses these universal beauty marks in full.

When Margarethe becomes the housekeeper for the wealthy Van den Meer family, she instantly clashes with the mistress of the household Henrika, who mysteriously dies later in the book, opening the path for Margarethe to marry Van den Meer, whose wealth is based upon the infamous Holland tulip trade of the 17th century. Klara, with her beautiful face and family wealth, had been kidnapped as a child and her parents had to spend a small fortune to get her back, so she is prone to numerous neuroses, as we’d call them nowadays. She loathes her new stepmother Margarethe and they constantly battle. But she and Iris develop an odd love-hate relationship, in which they become mutually dependent on one another in trying to survive the sheer horridness of Margarethe’s terrible mothering.

On a larger scale, Iris and Klara come to see themselves as flip sides of the same coin in terms of aesthetics and feminine self-worth and self-realization. Both are judged by society on the basis of their looks, which puts them into the same boat in a sense. Both are women trapped in a patriarchal society in which they must depend on men for their living and sense of worth. Both are able to change their own outlooks on life and take an active role in how their lives will develop. Klara is in danger of being married off to Van Stolk, an elderly lecherous merchant who offers her father and stepmother money, as they have lost their fortune due to the tulip crash. Iris is in danger of losing her nerve to become an artist, to study with the Master and to take seriously the courtship of the Master’s apprentice Caspar, who loves Iris.

The turning point and the climax of the book is, of course, the ball. Marie de Medici, Dowager Queen of France, comes to Haarlem to try and marry off one of her nephews (fictional, of course) and all the families in the town are invited. Klara, who has been living in the kitchen and working as the housekeeper to avoid her despised stepmother, is covered in ashes and soot but these cannot hide her beauty. In an attempt to avoid the planned marriage to Van Stolk, she, Iris and Caspar devise a plan to get her a gorgeous dress and her mother’s famous white satin slippers, never worn. Both Klara and Iris, and Ruth, who plays a much larger role in the book than you would imagine until closer to the end, each take life-changing actions to ensure their futures are not at the mercy of either their mother/stepmother, the changing fates of the tulip economy, or their beauty and lack thereof.

It’s a gorgeously written book, lush and elegant, almost like a tapestry woven with golden threads and sharp, stunning colors. The descriptions of paint colors, artwork, lavish gowns, gleaming jewels, the colors of the winter sky and the glint of sunshine on ice and snow, and the delectable and opulent descriptions of food all combine to create an effect of both wealth and strange magical realism. This paragraph inspired today’s dish:

Van den Meer leaves the Master and Caspar alone for a few minutes. Iris can hear him barking instructions to the kitchen staff for refreshments to be served in an hour: a platter of lobsters and a bowl of lemons – some greens, soaked to remove sand – a pitcher of beer and a pitcher of water and a pile of freshly ironed linens……

Lobster, lemons and wilted greens mean one thing to me – lobster lemon linguine with wilter spinach. Here’s how I did it.

INGREDIENTS
4 lobster tails
1 bottle dry white wine. I used Sauvignon Blanc
6-7 sprigs fresh thyme
10 ounces linguine pasta
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium shallot
4 cloves of garlic
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 lemon, to be zested and juiced
1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup of pasta water from the linguine

METHOD
Poach the lobster tails in the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and add the thyme leaves. Bring to a boil and cook until the lobster tails turn bright red and curl up. Remove and let cool.

Cut off the tail and cut down the back of the cooked lobster and remove the lobster meat. Chop into chunks and set aside.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and cook the linguine for roughly 8 minutes, until just al dente, then remove a cup of the cooking water. While the pasta is cooking, finely dice the garlic and shallot.

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat, then cook the garlic and shallot about 10 minutes with some salt and pepper.

Pour in the heavy cream and raise the heat slightly so the cream simmers. Don’t let it burn or curdle, though. Once it is barely bubbling, turn down the heat and add the butter, the zest and juice of one lemon, the shaved Parmesan, and season with salt and pepper.

Stir until creamily melted together into a lovely sauce, and add in about half a cup of the pasta water, then add in the lobster chunks.

Add the pasta into the sauce and cook another couple of minutes, tossing the pasta with tongs to ensure every strand is lusciously covered with the creamy, lemony sauce. The sauce may thicken up a bit so add some more pasta water and more lemon juice to taste as needed.

Add in about 3 cups of fresh spinach, cover, and let the heat wilt the spinach down, then stir again, plate up and serve with a delicious Pinot Grigio or dry white wine of your choice. Delicious, beautiful, elegant – rather like the book itself. Salut!

9 thoughts on “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

    1. A very merry Christmas to you as well. The book is wonderful and it is actually a perfect read for this time of year because it is set in the wintertime in Holland and goes perfectly with the over all feeling.

      Liked by 1 person

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