Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
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"Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister" Summary

By Gregory Maguire

fantasy | 372 pages | Published in NaN

We have all heard the story of Cinderella, the beautiful child cast out to slave among the ashes. But what of her stepsisters, the homely pair exiled into ignominy by the fame of their lovely sibling? What fate befell those untouched by beauty ... and what curses accompanied Cinderella's looks?Set against the backdrop of seventeenth-century Holland, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister tells the story of Iris, an unlikely heroine who finds herself swept from the lowly streets of Haarlem to a strange world of wealth, artifice, and ambition. Iris's path quickly becomes intertwined with that of Clara, the mysterious and unnaturally beautiful girl destined to become her sister. While Clara retreats to the cinders of the family hearth, Iris seeks out the shadowy secrets of her new household -- and the treacherous truth of her former life.


Estimated read time: 6 min read

One Sentence Summary

A retelling of Cinderella from the perspective of an "ugly stepsister" in 17th century Holland.


"Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister" by Gregory Maguire is a captivating retelling of the classic Cinderella fairy tale. Set in 17th century Holland, the novel provides a fresh perspective on the well-known story, delving into the lives of the so-called "ugly" stepsisters and exploring themes of beauty, societal expectations, and the complexity of human relationships. Maguire's masterful storytelling and richly detailed historical setting make this novel a thought-provoking and compelling read.

Brief Synopsis

In 17th century Holland, the story unfolds against the backdrop of bustling cities, picturesque landscapes, and the thriving art scene of the Dutch Golden Age. The novel follows the lives of Iris, a plain but intelligent young woman, and her beautiful but emotionally fragile sister, Ruth. After their father's death, the two sisters and their mother, Margarethe, relocate to Haarlem in search of a better life.

As they struggle to survive in a new environment, they encounter the enigmatic artist, Schoonmaker, and his alluring but mysterious housemaid, Clara. The arrival of Clara and the unfolding events set in motion a series of transformations, both physical and emotional, for the main characters. The novel weaves a tale of love, ambition, and the pursuit of beauty, all set against the backdrop of a society obsessed with appearances.

Main Characters

The book features several main characters, each with their own distinct traits and motivations:

IrisA plain but intelligent young woman, initially overshadowed by her beautiful sister, Ruth.
RuthIris's stunning but emotionally fragile sister, whose beauty becomes a source of both envy and despair.
MargaretheThe sisters' mother, who is determined to secure a better life for her daughters, no matter the cost.
ClaraThe enigmatic and alluring housemaid who enters the sisters' lives, sparking a series of transformations.
SchoonmakerA talented artist who becomes entangled in the lives of the main characters, with his own secrets and desires.

Story Points Over Chapters

Chapter 1-3: Arrival in Haarlem

Iris, Ruth, and Margarethe arrive in Haarlem and struggle to make ends meet. Margarethe secures work as a housekeeper for a wealthy merchant, and the family begins to settle into their new life in the bustling city.

Chapter 4-6: Meeting Clara and Schoonmaker

The sisters encounter the enigmatic Clara, a housemaid working for the wealthy Van den Meer family. Iris is captivated by Clara's beauty, while Ruth feels increasingly insecure. The sisters also encounter the talented artist, Schoonmaker, whose presence adds more complexity to their lives.

Chapter 7-9: Transformations Unfolding

As the story progresses, the characters undergo various transformations, both physical and emotional. Iris becomes increasingly involved in Schoonmaker's artistic endeavors, and Ruth's fragile state takes a toll on her relationship with her family.

Chapter 10-12: The Ball and Revelations

The Van den Meer family hosts a grand ball, and the lives of the main characters intersect in unexpected ways. Secrets are revealed, and the dynamics between the characters undergo significant shifts.

Chapter 13-15: Pursuit of Beauty and Identity

The pursuit of beauty and identity becomes a central theme as the characters grapple with societal expectations and personal desires. The relationships between Iris, Ruth, Clara, and Schoonmaker become increasingly intricate and fraught with tension.

Chapter 16-18: Unraveling Truths

The novel reaches a crescendo as long-held truths and deceptions come to light. The characters are forced to confront the consequences of their actions, leading to profound changes in their lives and relationships.

Main Events

The main events in "Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister" revolve around the interactions and transformations of the characters in the midst of societal expectations and personal desires. These events include the family's arrival in Haarlem, the introduction of Clara and Schoonmaker, the Van den Meer family's grand ball, and the unraveling of the characters' truths and deceptions.

Themes and Insights


  • Beauty and Perception: The novel explores the subjective nature of beauty and the societal pressures surrounding physical appearance.
  • Identity and Self-Worth: The characters grapple with questions of identity and self-worth as they navigate their roles in a society that places significant emphasis on external beauty.
  • Art and Ambition: The pursuit of artistic expression and personal ambition intersect with the characters' desires and motivations, shaping their decisions and relationships.


  • Complex Characters: Maguire crafts complex, multi-dimensional characters, each with their own motivations and struggles, allowing readers to empathize with their internal conflicts.
  • Historical Context: The novel's setting in 17th century Holland provides a rich historical backdrop, offering insights into the societal norms and artistic influences of the time.

Reader's Takeaway

"Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister" offers readers a thought-provoking exploration of beauty, identity, and the complexities of human relationships. The novel's richly developed characters and historical setting provide a captivating backdrop for a reimagined fairy tale. Readers will find themselves drawn into the intricately woven lives of Iris, Ruth, Clara, and Schoonmaker, and will be left contemplating the themes of beauty, ambition, and the pursuit of personal fulfillment long after the final page.


Gregory Maguire's "Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister" presents a compelling and evocative reimagining of the classic Cinderella story, offering a fresh perspective on the lives of the so-called "ugly" stepsisters. Through its rich historical setting, complex characters, and exploration of timeless themes, the novel invites readers to delve into a world where beauty, ambition, and personal identity intersect in unexpected and transformative ways. With its thought-provoking narrative, the book leaves a lasting impression and offers a deeper understanding of the complexities of human nature and societal expectations.

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister FAQ

  1. What is 'Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister' about?

    The book 'Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister' by Gregory Maguire is a reimagining of the classic Cinderella fairy tale. It tells the story from the perspective of one of the 'ugly stepsisters' and explores themes of beauty, identity, and societal expectations.

  2. Is 'Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister' suitable for young readers?

    The book contains mature themes and complex storytelling, making it more suitable for older readers, such as young adults and adults.

  3. What makes 'Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister' unique?

    The unique perspective of retelling a well-known fairy tale from the point of view of a traditionally vilified character, as well as the exploration of deeper themes, sets 'Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister' apart.

  4. Is 'Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister' part of a series?

    No, 'Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister' is a standalone novel and not part of a series.

  5. Does 'Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister' have any film adaptations?

    As of now, there are no major film adaptations of 'Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister.'