The prince’s footman is impatiently waiting in the mansion’s foyer while Ella’s stepmother is heating the knife in the kitchen fire so that her daughter, Isabelle, can slice off her own toes. Maman doesn’t care about the pain if Isabelle can fit into the glass slipper, marry the prince, and elevate her whole family to wealth and power. Unfortunately for Isabelle, the prince is tipped off by all the blood, Ella frees herself from the attic, and they ride off into a beautiful life together, while Isabelle is left with her mother and sister, still single, and now minus five toes.
Behind the scenes, and unbeknownst to mortals, the three sisters of Fate have already drawn up the map of Isabelle’s life, and it’s a short one covered with toxic inks. Everything could come to a rapid and disastrous end if not for the intervention of the carefree Chance, he of the long, dark braids and amber eyes. Chance capers into the sisters’ room, steals Isabelle’s map, and makes a bargain with the old crone, later known as Tantine. Thus begins a contest for Isabelle’s life, along with the dubious aid of Tanaquill, the fairy queen of the Wildwood, who had turned a pumpkin into a coach for Ella on the night of the royal ball. Tanaquill reveals to Isabelle that she will only be saved if she can put her heart back together by finding the three pieces that have been cut away. Frustratingly, she does not tell her what those pieces are.
Life is going from bad to worse for the “ugly stepsisters,” and Isabelle is sure that everything would be peaches and cream if she were only pretty, like Ella. Instead of behaving like a princess, though, she has always loved riding horses and roughhousing with the groom’s son, while her sister Tavi wants to study and perform scientific experiments, all of which is completely unsuitable for finding husbands. With war brewing in France and villagers attacking them for their cruelty to the lovely Ella, Isabelle is wasting precious time by mistakenly trying to piece her heart back together by becoming someone else, a girl who could be approved of by whoever it is who makes the rules. If only she could get on the right track in time to save her own life!
Character development reigns in this fiercely feminist retelling of the Cinderella story. All of the wildly diverse secondary characters shape and mold Isabelle’s understanding of real life and of her inner landscape: Chance’s ragtag troupe of magicians and actors, the wealthy yet miserly widow and her bullying dolt of a son who offer Tantine a room in exchange for the hope of an inheritance, and the groom’s son, who is no longer a young boy, but a successful carpenter who builds coffins for a living and whittles toy soldiers in the evenings.
Jennifer Donnelly’s writing is as exquisite as ever. The first line of the prologue reads: “Once upon always and never again, in an ancient city by the sea, three sisters worked by candlelight.” I first read Donnelly in her novel Revolution, in which a teen girl goes back in time to the late 1700s in France, and then later as Anne of Cleves in The Fatal Throne (reviewed here). In Stepsister, Donnelly is once more in historic France, this time in a more magical setting, slashing at the patriarchy and setting Isabelle up as a sort of Joan of Arc without the crazy voices in her head. Although I have no wish to swing a sword, as Isabelle does, nor to write quadratic equations on cabbage leaves like Tavi, the restrictions on the girls’ lives are entirely, oppressively realistic. While women did not become free several centuries ago through magic, such tales cause us to rejoice that today women are much more— though not quite completely— free. Free to study science and do research, or free to bake cookies and have teas. Free to ride horses and fight battles, or free to cuddle babies and knit socks. Free to show the world who they truly are.
A fantastical adventure with plenty of depth.
Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which is now available to the public. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.
The “For Everyone” series by N.T. Wright
Mark is my least favorite gospel. That’s not a very big deal, considering how much I love all of the gospels, but I usually turn to Matthew or Luke for their more complete accounts of Jesus’ life, including the beautifully familiar nativity passages, knowing that Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience, while Luke wrote for the gentiles. Then there is John’s poetic and spiritual gospel, with stories that do not appear in the other accounts. Where would we be without John 3:16 or “Do not let your hearts be troubled…” or the prooftext for Jesus’ approval of wine? Mark, on the other hand, has always seemed to be the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version to me, too brief and airless. When I was coming to the end of the New Testament recently in my who-knows-how-manyeth time through the Bible, I realized that I really needed to dive into Mark’s gospel in a big way to grow in my appreciation for what is essentially Peter’s account. Peter is my favorite apostle—always talking before thinking, just as I do—and Mark was his disciple after Jesus’ resurrection.
N.T. (Tom) Wright is probably the world’s foremost living New Testament scholar, a retired Anglican bishop and professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. I reviewed his amazing book, Surprised by Hope, here. Since then, I have read several of Wright’s books, and I just finished Mark for Everyone, which is part of the “For Everyone” paperback series that covers the entire New Testament. Wright has translated all of the books of the New Testament into his own contemporary version, a conversational translation with, occasionally, an amusing Britishism for the American reader. In this commentary series, Wright begins each section with a short passage in his translation, and then starts his discussion with a personal anecdote. He follows with some backstory explaining the historical or cultural facts that we need in order to understand what was readily known to the original audience, and then he pulls out the many layers of meaning within the text. In true Presbyterian fashion, he usually ends the segment with a sentence or two of application to our daily lives.
This truly accessible Bible commentary opens up new worlds of meaning, even for laypeople with a pretty thorough acquaintance with the scriptures. In a variation on the theme, he also has a few “Lent for Everyone” and “Advent for Everyone” titles that I have read and enjoyed. They are commentaries on the gospels that are set up to fit into daily readings for the appropriate season. All of the “For Everyone” titles are perfect for personal study for individuals or daily devotions for families with children in middle school or older. Affordable, not intimidatingly scholarly, but far from fluffy.
Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. Image of N.T. Wright is from RachelHeldEvans.com.
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Tagged as Bible commentaries, For Everyone series, N.T. Wright