Book review: Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly


Isabelle should be blissfully happy – she’s about to win the handsome prince. Except Isabelle isn’t the beautiful girl who lost the glass slipper and captured the prince’s heart. She’s the ugly stepsister who’s cut off her toes to fit into Cinderella’s shoe … which is now filling with blood.

When the prince discovers Isabelle’s deception, she is turned away in

shame. It’s no more than she deserves: she is a plain girl in a world that values beauty; a feisty girl in a world that wants her to be pliant.

Isabelle has tried to fit in. To live up to her mother’s expectations. To be like her stepsister. To be sweet. To be pretty. One by one, she has cut away pieces of herself in order to survive a world that doesn’t appreciate a girl like her. And that has made her mean, jealous, and hollow.

Until she gets a chance to alter her destiny and prove what ugly stepsisters have always known: it takes more than heartache to break a girl.

My rating:

This is a dark tale. A grim tale. It’s a tale from another time, a time when wolves waited for girls in the forest, beasts paced the halls of cursed castles, and witches lurked in gingerbread houses with sugar-kissed roofs. That time is long gone. But the wolves are still here and twice as clever. The beasts remain. And death still hides in a dusting of white. It’s grim for any girl who loses her way. Grimmer still for a girl who loses herself. Know that it’s dangerous to stray from the path. But it’s far more dangerous not to.

Once upon a time, there was a girl. Her name was Ella, but everyone called her Cinderella. She was kind and beautiful and did not deserve to be mistreated and abused by her stepmother and her two stepsisters. But at the end of the day, Ella found her Prince and her happiness. But this is not Ella’s story; this story belongs to her ugly stepsisters.

When I was a child and first read Cinderella, I self-righteously thought that evil stepsisters got what they’ve deserved. But years later, when I grew up and understood that not everything is white and black, and ugly is not necessarily evil, I started to ask myself a question: what if? And Jennifer Donnelly – my fairy godmother – answered my question. Stepsister is a spin-off of Cinderella’s story and takes place right after Cinderella leaves for the Palace with the Prince, and her ugly stepsisters are left broke and punished for the crimes they’ve committed. But what was the reason for all of those things they’ve done to Ella? Was Ella really so innocent? And what is the cost of love, family, and friendship when you lose them? These and more questions are masterly addressed by the author.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from this book. It seemed like the stepsisters were so one-dimensional in the original, it was almost impossible to think of a decent story for them. But as it turned out, one can come up with the most poignant, heart-breaking story that will make you weep, like I did more than once. And did I tell you that I love this story much more than I did Cinderella? And that Cinderella seems like one-dimensional compared to her sisters, now? Oh my god, this is all so confusing but, at the same time, so marvellous!

Jennifer Donnely created such a strong empowering story, giving solid reasons to everything that had happened, and sprinkled it with a dose of the magic from the original fairytale. Stepsister definitely looks more mature and darker compared to the original. By the way, this book refers not to the Disney’s Cinderella, but to a darker version, where stepsisters cut their fingers off in order to get the damn slipper on and, consequently, the Prince. When you look at the story under a different angle, you start to realize what if the two girls had cut their feet not because they desperately wanted to get the prince, but because society demanded it. In the alternative version of the real 18th century France, the author saved the same rules for the wicked: misogyny and sexism continue to bloom; smart and strong are ugly words for women, beautiful, on the other hand, are the best compliments a girl can dream of.

“Can’t you make yourself likeable? Can’t you even try?” Something shifted in Tavi then. She was always so flippant, trailing sarcasm behind her like a duchess trailing furs. But not this time. Hugo had pierced her armor and blood was dripping from the wound. “Try for whom, Hugo?” she repeated, her voice raw. “For the rich boys who get to go to the Sorbonne even though they’re too stupid to solve a simple quadratic equation? For the viscount I was seated next to at a dinner who tried to put his hand up my skirt through all five courses? For the smug society ladies who look me up and down and purse their lips and say no, I won’t do for their sons because my chin is too pointed, my nose is too large, I talk too much about numbers?” “Tavi …” Isabelle whispered. She went to her, tried to put an arm around her, but Tavi shook her off. “I wanted books. I wanted maths and science. I wanted an education,” Tavi said, her eyes bright with emotion. “I got corsets and gowns and high-heeled slippers instead. It made me sad, Hugo. And then it made me angry. So no, I can’t make myself likeable. I’ve tried. Over and over. It doesn’t work. If I don’t like who I am, why should you?”

I can’t express with words how much I admire the ugly sisters – Isabelle and Tavi! Please, stay ugly in the face of the world if it means you can be yourself! Jennifer Donnelly created such a deep, meaningful story, full of heartache but, also, redemption and finding your true self. Her prose is luminous with empowering words. I couldn’t help but fell in love with it. Every girl will see herself in Tavi or Isabelle: girls who weren’t up to someone’s expectations, or girls who lost themselves and couldn’t find their true self. This story is for all of us:

She was sorry for all the grim-tale girls locked in lonely towers. Trapped in sugar houses. Lost in the dark woods, with a huntsman coming to cut out their hearts.

Highly recommended!

6 thoughts on “Book review: Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

      1. The book is really great! 3.5 stars for me mean that I almost loved the book (5 stars only for chosen ones, ahaha). Please, Laurie, don’t reconsider reading this one, I hope you’ll enjoy it 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. –A Court of Books–

        Okay I get it now, it makes more sense then haha! To me 3.5 is « okay but nothing special about it ». I understand why your review was all praise now haha 🙂


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