Thursday, March 21, 2019


Stepsister. Jennifer Donnelly. 2019. Scholastic. 352 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence of the prologue: Once upon always and never again, in an ancient city by the sea, three sisters worked by candlelight. 

First sentence from chapter one: In the kitchen of a grand mansion, a girl sat clutching a knife. Her name was Isabelle. She was not pretty.

Premise/plot: Stepsister is a retelling of the fairy tale Cinderella told from the point of view of one of the stepsisters. But is it more than that?

The prologue sets the stage: a battle is coming, a battle between FATE and CHANCE. (There are three FATE sisters, but, primarily this novel features the crone. Chance is Marquis de la Chance.) The setting is a French village--primarily.

Chance has stolen a map--a map of a particular mortal, Isabelle. He's hoping that HER map can be changed. That the destiny that Fate has written her--or drawn for her--can be thwarted. The Crone angered that Chance has dared to steal from her--from them--sets out on a journey to find the girl and make sure that Chance doesn't give the girl any ideas of trying to fight back or change her story, her destiny. Which is exactly what Chance hopes to do with a little help.

The novel opens AFTER the ball. Isabelle has witnessed the pain, the agony, the humiliation of her sister, Octavia (aka "Tavi"). Their mother's insistence that the girls cut their bodies--their feet--in order to fit into the glass slipper is about to lead Isabelle to a similar fate.
How many times had she cut away parts of herself at her mother's demand? The part that laughed too loudly. That rode too fast and jumped too high. The part that wished for a second helping, more gravy, a bigger slice of cake. If I marry the prince, I will be a princess, Isabelle thought. And one day a queen. And no one will dare call me ugly ever again. (11)
As you might have guessed, neither girl--neither stepsister--fools the prince, not for longer than a few seconds, a few minutes anyway.

Stepsister is the story of what happens next....what happens in the small village where everyone knows what you did, what you tried to do. It was bad enough everyone calling you they think you're evil and twisted too.

Can Isabelle write her own story? Can she find the strength, courage, and heart to be true to herself and become the person she's always wanted to be?

My thoughts: I love, love, love this one. Not because it is premise-driven. Not because it is a "feminist" retelling of a fairy tale. No, I love it because of the characters. I love Isabelle and Tavi. I love their relationship and conversations. I don't love their mother; if you thought she was only cruel to Cinderella, you'd be wrong. But though in some ways she's true to the evil stepmother stereotype, she's also a dimensional character. One you wouldn't want as a mother, as a neighbor, as a friend, or even an acquaintance--but one that must have a back story somewhere that would explain why she is the way she is. I don't love her--or even remotely like her--but there were a few scenes where I almost, almost, almost pitied her. I also enjoy seeing Isabelle and Tavi interact with a neighbor, Hugo. I could go on about all the characters I enjoyed meeting, but to do so would be to spoil the plot. That wouldn't be fair. The book isn't even released yet.

I also love it because of the writing.
Isabelle had a strong will. She did not know that this was a good thing for a girl to have because everyone had always told her it was a terrible thing. Everyone said a girl with a strong will would come to a bad end. Everyone said a girl's will must be bent to the wishes of those who know what's best for her. Isabelle was young, only sixteen; she had not yet learned that everyone is a fool. (12)
One by one they'd all disappeared, each loss like the swipe of a carver's knife. Whittling her down. Smoothing her edges. Making her more like the girl Maman wanted her to be. Isabelle had cut off her toes, but sometimes she could still feel them. Maman had cut out her heart. Sometimes she could still feel that, too. (40)
The wolves in the woods have sharp teeth and long claws, but it's the wolf inside who will tear you apart. (43)
History books say that kings and dukes and generals start wars. Don't believe it. We start them, you and I. Every time we turn away, keep quiet, stay out of it, behave ourselves. The wrong thing, the cowardly thing, the easy thing. You do it fast. You put it behind you. It's over, you tell yourself as you hurry off. You're finished with it. But it may not be finished with you. (46)
Envy, resentment, shame--Maman had rubbed these things against Isabelle's heart, and Tavi's until they were raw. Maman was subtle; she was clever. She'd started early. She'd started small. She knew that even tiny wounds, left untended, can fester and swell and turn a heart black. (66)
Most people will fight when there is some hope of winning, no matter how slim. They are called brave. Only a few will keep fighting when all hope is gone. They are called warriors. Isabelle was a warrior once, though she has forgotten it. (75)
Fear is the most misunderstood of creatures. It only wants the best for you. It will help you if you let it. Isabelle understood this. She listened to her fear and let it guide her. He's faster than you! It shouted as the chicken thief rushed her. So she retreated under low-hanging tree branches, which scratched his face and poked his eyes, slowing him. He's stronger than you! her fear howled. So she led him over the tree's knobby roots and made him trip. (88)
Pretty hooks you fast and kills you slowly. (124)
Call a girl pretty once, and all she wants, forevermore, is to hear it again. (124)
Pretty's a noose you put around your own neck. Any fool can tighten it on you and kick away your footing. (125)

© 2019 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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