Saturday, July 22, 2017

A Cinderella History

Review: The Step-Spinsters by Madina Papadopoulos


Kindle Scout offerings tend to come in surges: There will be a plethora of vampire tales, then a plague of dystopias, followed by a month in which every third novel is a romance set in Miami or Beverley Hills. One recent surge offered multiple retellings of the Cinderella fairy tale. (I reviewed two others recently as Fractured Fairy Tales.) Here's another, which I nominated. Since it was selected, I got to read it for free.

The Papadopoulos novel, however, is not presented as a fairy story; the setting is historical medieval France, and (mostly) realistic. Not only that, it weaves other stories (like Bluebeard) into the narrative.

Cinderella and her step-sisters Fredegonde and Javotte are all older girls seeking husbands. In the parlance of the time, they are spinsters, although only Javotte is an actual weaver. The three, with their mother Isabelle, live on an estate which is soon to pass back to the hands of the local Duke, because non-noble women may not hold lands or other real property in this era. Thus the impetus to marry one of the three daughters to Duke Louis' son.


Cinderella is not the innocent betrayed by her evil step-family, nor is she the porcelain beauty of the 1950s portrayed in the Disney film.1 
No blonde bangs on a medieval beauty!
Instead, her loveliness is assessed by the standards of the time: a high, hairless forehead, lashless heavy-lidded eyes, and lips so thin they almost vanish. She connives to attend the Prince's ball separate from her step-family, because she fears their curious appearance will prevent the Prince from appreciating her own beauty.

Fredegonde, or "Freddie" as her sisters call her, is actually a beauty of a different, more modern style. Tall, sturdily athletic, with sweeping eyelashes and tawny red hair, she manages her late father's estate, writes, and composes song lyrics. She loves her tiny sister Javotte, even though everyone in the family avoids getting too close to Javotte and her halitosis—something has left the girl with but a single tooth, as well as chronic bad breath.

Both girls struggle to endure the company of their step-sister Cinderella, whose wit is applied mostly to poke fun at the others' shortcomings and flaws. In the Ducal chateau, meanwhile, the handsome knight Enguerrand teases Prince Louis, naming him "Galant" while subtly discouraging the prince from actually being gallant and valiant. Duke Louis mourns his mysteriously-deceased former wives, and plots to marry again. And Lord Mercier calculates how much he can charge for the wedding gifts, fabrics, and sundries for the upcoming festivities.

I loved the clever way the "fairy godmother" was handled. You finish the story wondering, was there any magic involved at all? Because there certainly was something magical in the not-quite-happily-ever-after ending that managed to stay true to the original tale...

Then danced past it just enough to keep it real!

Liner Notes

  1. In the late 1940s, my mother and her sister competed in a national search for a girl to perform the singing voice of Cinderella for the movie. My aunt Betty actually made it to the last stage of this competition, and submitted a tape for Walt Disney. (The singing part eventually went to Ilene Woods, who had already voiced Snow White for a Disney audiobook.)
  2. The story is richly supplied with medieval French style details like hennins and crespinettes that kept me busy looking things up in Wikipedia. 
  3. At the time of this review, the novel was only available in ebook format.