Jennifer Donnelly, author of Step Sister, succeeded eloquently in presenting a lesser unknown, brighter side to a widely beloved and unexpectedly dark tale. This is the tale of the ugly stepsisters and the beautiful orphaned maiden, a tale of Chance and Fate. The book begins by describing a gruesome scene of two step-sisters, named Isabelle and Octavia, cutting off their toes at the persistent demands of their mother to win over the Prince. Unsurprisingly, they are unable to fruitfully carry out this endeavor and instead Ella, the elegant step-sister who is a victim to the hate and cruelty of her step-family, catches the Prince’s attention after which they live happily ever after. This is where the classic tale ends, where we are told to believe all tales should end. But, for Isabelle and Octavia this is only the beginning.
Shunned from their village and hated by the townspeople, Isabelle and Octavia are forced into a lonely existence within the walls of their home. Such a life helps Isabelle to recollect old memories of herself, her sisters, an old lover and a beloved friend. She wonders where it all went wrong and draws attention to society’s perception of what an ideal woman should be-a petite, soft-spoken or silent, well-dressed, unopinionated and above all pretty individual who conforms to the demands of the men in her life without surpassing them in neither intelligence nor ability. She also realizes that their cruelty directed at Ella was a result of their own insecurities at being unable to fulfill society’s criteria of what an acceptable woman should be. After all, Isabelle was too loud, too opinionated and fond of reading about war heroes she should never aspire to be and Octavia was too intelligent, too witty and questioned the mathematical and scientific knowledge of the men around her. Perhaps she was guilty of cutting parts of her personality off to fit this model of society, just as she cut off her toes to fit into the glass slipper. Without knowing, Isabelle becomes the object of conflict between Chance, who aims to encourage Isabelle to change her destiny, and Fate, who is determined to lead Isabelle along the path of her destruction. Isabelle must find the pieces of her heart if she wishes to attain what her heart desires the most-beauty, or so she believes.
The fact that this book is a thought-provoking depiction of modern 21st century problems told in the setting of the late 19th century led me to conclude that the problems and societal expectations faced by women then have largely remained the same throughout the centuries. The character of Isabelle is one that is thoughtfully constructed; Isabelle is introduced as the cruel step-sister, desperate to please her mother, and soon evolves into a woman who truly knows and takes pride in herself. She uses her strength of mind to discover herself and to create a determination in her heart which reassures her of the uniqueness of her own character despite what anyone else thinks. So, she grows from an individual who is largely affected by society to one who finds the courage to be her free self. It is important to note that both step-sisters felt guilt at how they poorly mistreated Ella which breaks the stereotype of strong women being unremorseful and violent. The author conveys her ideas through simple and easy-to-understand language, which is also why I found this to be a gripping read. ‘Girls are better seen and not heard’, ‘don’t laugh, smile politely’, ‘be agreeable’, ‘sit like a proper lady’, ‘you asked for it’ are such phrases repeatedly sang to girls from an early age. This superficial image of what a girl should be or should not be is forcibly embedded in our minds by women-our own mothers, aunts, sisters and grandmothers- who themselves have been victim to the same vicious cycle of standard-setting. Not only can this phenomena of toxic standard-setting be seen being enforced by the people in our lives, but it is also depicted in the stories and characters we grow to love from a young age. Future generations need more authors to write new classic tales about empowered women such as the story of ‘Step Sister.’