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Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

Stepsister Book Review

By: Julianne Chen

When we were children, most of us loved the tale of Cinderella. Many of us knew it by heart: a pretty girl is repeatedly tormented by her stepfamily, she gets a makeover from her fairy godmother, she goes to a ball, falls in love with a prince, loses a shoe and gets married. Most of those characters don’t have any development besides their one defining trait. However, bestselling author Jennifer Donnelly took it upon herself to fix that. In her novel Stepsister, Donnelly tells the story of the ugly stepsister Isabelle and shows that beauty (and ugliness) are in the eyes of the beholder. 

In the original fairy tale, the stepfamily is wicked, the prince is charming and Cinderella is kind and beautiful. Nothing more is explored. However, Donnelly shows the deeper side of the stepfamily. Isabelle’s heart may be broken, but she has the heart of a warrior. Octavia (Tavi) was always shunned for her intelligence and denied education due to the fact that she is a girl. Maman only wanted the best for her daughters, but they didn’t fit the norms. Isabelle and Tavi were too different, not conventional enough. And perhaps Ella was never as perfect as the story had always made her out to be. 

Isabelle never fit into the mold. In her world and ours, girls are expected to be kind, quiet, patient and pretty. Isabelle is loud, fierce, prickly, impatient and she certainly doesn’t fit into traditional beauty standards. When the prince presents the glass slipper he found at the ball, Isabelle -desperate to please her mother and the world- cuts off her toes to fit the slipper. This is a metaphor for all the things that girls try to do to fit the beauty standards. When the prince goes on to marry her stepsister Ella, Isabelle is left broken hearted and desperate to be pretty. When the fairy queen Tanaquill tells her to find her heart back, she learns that beauty isn’t what she truly wishes for. In order to find back her heart, Isabelle must fight what’s inside herself before she can vanquish the true enemy. 

In the end, Stepsister is a tale of redemption and empowerment. The story presents a new idea of both ugliness and prettiness. Jennifer Donnelly shows us all the brilliant things that us human beings can accomplish, if we only believe in ourselves and take a chance. What we do with our chance can change the world, for better or worse. It all depends on how we use our chance.