Isabelle has never been able to please her mother. She’s too wild. Too ugly. Too opinionated. That hasn’t kept her from trying, though. She’ll cut off her own toes to try to make her mother happy. But the prince isn’t fooled. As blood pools in Cindererlla’s glass slipper, Isabelle is sent away in disgrace. And now everyone knows just how terrible she really is. Then chance gives her the opportunity to change her fate, to reclaim the pieces of her heart she’s lost. Isabelle yearns to try. But maybe she’s too bitter and broken to get her own happily-ever-after.
Jennifer Donnelly’s Stepsister will likely be one of the standout YA fantasies of the year. In it, Donnelly imagines the aftermath of Cinderella’s romance through the eyes of Isabelle, one of her “ugly” stepsisters. Isabelle may not be as pretty as Cinderlla. And she’s certainly not as sweet. But Isabelle is strong and smart and hardworking. And she thinks it’s about time she gets to be happy, too. In Isabelle, Donnelly gives readers a heroine who is not afraid to stand out or to go after what she wants–even if the world repeatedly tells her “no.” Stepsister is a fierce, feminist retelling that makes readers rethink what they know of “Cinderella.”
Donnelly’s retelling feels different from the many on the market as she focuses on the experiences, not of Cinderella, but of her stepsisters. Donnelly does not pretend the two were really nice–they did, after all, treat Cindererlla like dirt. She does, however, make them sympathetic, first by showing how society set them against each other buy judging their worth based on their looks and their docility, and then by showing how their mother stifled them by forcing them act like the “proper young ladies” they never wanted to be. Isabelle is angry, resentful, and bitter–and not just at her perfect, beautiful, now fabulously-wealthy stepsister.
The theme of societal expectations runs throughout the book. And, for the most part, it is a thoughtful look at how the patriarchy harms women. At times, however, the message becomes heavy-handed, with characters actually making speeches about how women can never find out how strong they are, etc. Fortunately, the story is strong enough to survive these rough moments of dialogue.
The story focuses on quite a bit, not just Isabelle’s survival after Cinderella leaves and the village turns on her once-wealthy family. There is a war going on, with troops rapidly approaching. There is a long-lost love. And there is a quest–a way for Isabelle to be granted her heart’s desire, if only she can be strong and smart enough. It all makes for a fast-paced, exciting read, one that effortlessly expands the world of Cinderella from a house and a palace, to a kingdom.
Stepsister is sure to please both fans of fairy tales and fans of feminist fantasy. With its strong protagonist, engrossing storyline, and fast-paced plot, it is sure to be one of the most notable YA fantasies of 2019.