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Review: Stepsister


“This world, the people in it, sort us. Put us into crates. You are an egg. You are a potato. You are a cabbage. They tell us who we are, what we will do, what we will be.

Because they are afraid. Afraid of what we could be,” Tavi said.

“But we let them do it!” Hugo said angrily. “Why?”

Tavi gave a rueful smile … “Because we’re afraid of what we could be too.”

I believe certain things come to you at moments in your life — a person, a song, a book — that are critical. Maybe it’s you are in a place to appreciate it more, maybe you are more receptive to the message. But sometimes a certain magic exists in the world that connects the right person to something that they very much needed, if they are open to receiving it.

This was such a book to me.

It had me at the dedication: To everyone who’s ever felt that they are not enough.

If that speaks to you, and you like an excellent classic retelling, you’ll love this book.

This is a gritty, dark Cinderella retelling. There are many, but few breathe such new life into the classic. This time it is told through the perspective of Isabelle, one of the “ugly” stepsisters. She is about to win the handsome prince, she just has to fit her foot into one little shoe. Of course, it won’t fit … so under the pressure and encouragement of her mother she cuts off two of her toes. So begins Stepsister.

Turned away in shame, a pariah of her small town, Isabelle begins the painful journey away from bitterness, away from societal expectation, and toward the ever so challenging adventure of allowing yourself to be who you’ve always been. Tossed as a pawn between the powers of two forces: Chance and Fate, Isabelle fights for her own happy-ever-after, reconnecting the pieces of herself she has slowly cut away in the name of others, and hopefully stopping a vicious warlord along the way.

What is pretty? What is ugly? Why are these the definitions and characteristics we assign to women that solely matter?

“Ella is the beauty. You and I are the ugly stepsisters. And so the world reduces us, all three of us, to our lowest common denominator.” 

As Jennifer Donnelly so expertly explores here — we let them. We assign such power to the words of pretty and ugly. As she asks of us, why do we allow this? Those words only hold the power to hurt if you place all your self worth in the hands of another’s opinion.

Isabelle is a fantastically fierce, strong and passionate character. I have never, hand over heart, related to a character like I did to her. She has been told her entire life that her “passion”, her speaking out is a negative thing that always lands her in trouble. That she is difficult. That she is loud. But why is standing up for yourself considered difficult?

All characters are expertly created with great attention to detail; great voice. Isabelle’s character development is quite spectacular. Set in an 18th century-esque French village, the world is developed just fine but it is the questions that this book makes us answer, that truly make it shine. The introspective it forces. The play between the easy path (fate) and the challenging path (chance).

It is a retelling that will stick with me for a long time.


“History books say that kings and dukes and generals start wars. Don’t believe it. We start them, you and I. Every time we turn away, keep quiet, stay out of it and behave ourselves.”

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