Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly


Goodreads: Stepsister
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2019


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.

Star Divider


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.

4 stars

12 thoughts on “Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

    • Krysta says:

      I know I always love a good fairy tale retelling! I like the focus on the stepsister in this one, answering the question of what happens when you become famous for being mean to the new princess.


  1. Michael J. Miller says:

    I gave my students an essay exam where they had to evaluate the presentation of female characters in stories (be it novel, movie, TV, musical, whatever) from our culture. One of the young women in my class outlined, in the Disney version at least, how Cinderella is so lacking agency or ability she can’t even do the servant tasks that comprise her daily life but, instead, must rely on the animals around her to help. I had never thought of it in that light before and it certainly made me want to revisit the story of Cinderella, particularly through the lens of more feminist criticism. This novel sounds like it would fit right in with that! So thanks for putting it on my radar :).


    • Krysta says:

      That’s an interesting take. I never thought of Cinderella as being unable to do her own tasks; I thought the animals were just being nice to her and helping her because they’re friends. If she is unable to do all her tasks, however, I would have assumed it’s because she’s running an estate by herself. Normally, you’d think the stepmother would have more than one servant to cook, clean, dress the girls, take care of the animals and yard, etc. Which then raises the question: Is the stepfamily lacking agency because they can’t do their own work, but must make Cinderella do it for them?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        I always thought the animals were just being nice to her too! That was part of why it blew my mind. But it does open up an intriguing avenue for analysis of the story. In that vein, is the Fairy Godmother another factor that speaks to Cinderella’s lack of agency? Or is she personifying the mystical, powerful, and sacred within women? Like, is she an embodiment of the Divine Feminine or something like that?

        As to the stepfamily…that’s fascinating too. I can see it speaking to a lack of agency on their part. I can also see a sort of Marxist criticism lens applied here, looking at how the “wealthy and powerful” benefit at the expense of the oppressed working class. Which you could then integrate your point about a larger workforce and see its absence as a sign that a) they really aren’t as wealthy as they seem so they can’t afford it or b) the stepmother really wants to oppress Cinderella so, as opposed to hiring more people, she makes her do all the work.


        • Krysta says:

          And what does it say that it’s the animals who help Cinderella? Why are the animals subservient to humans? They seem like little people, just in animal bodies, and they are far handier/useful than most of the humans. Should the humans be treating the animals like servants, then??

          Apparently what you can read into “Cinderella” is nearly endless, which I have now realized thanks to your amazing student.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Michael J. Miller says:

            The animal question is spot on and I find myself asking that of sci-fi stories with sentient AIs or robots too. Where is the line for “human” when a character – be it animal, machine, or whatever – can clearly think, reason, communicate, and has a sense of self?

            And yeah, I do have to thank my student for this. I’ve found myself thinking of our conversation here a lot. It’s a story I’ve heard a dozen times in several different fashions but I had no idea there was THIS MUCH to consider or explore with it. It’s been a bit mind blowing but a lot of fun :).

            Liked by 1 person

  2. anhdara13 says:

    This sounds like something I will LOVE. I actually do love Cinderella as a story and as a character, because, to me at least, it’s about overcoming abuse and finding happiness. But the step-sisters are fascinating characters because were they the way they were because of their mother’s influence or were they really just that petty? So this is definitely going on my TBR.

    Liked by 1 person

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