Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

People will not forget. Or forgive. An ugly girl is too great an offense…the world is made for men. An ugly girl can never be forgiven.”

“Stepsister” by Jennifer Donnelly tells the gripping story of Cinderella’s ‘ugly’ stepsister, Isabelle. We’ve been told this fairy-tale over and over again throughout our lives and know the characters well. But have you ever wondered what happened to the sisters after Cinderella married the Prince? Or why the sisters disliked her so much? 

Isabelle is fierce, strong and adventurous and her sister, Octavia, is one of the most intelligent people in France – but none of this matters. These are not desired qualities in women. Women are supposed to be beautiful, quiet and obedient, which is everything the sisters aren’t. The world has made them hard, cruel and hollow. Their fate is mapped out – filled with sorrow, violence and misery – and nothing can change that. Or can it?

Isabelle unintentionally calls out to the fairy queen, Tanaquill, for help. She just wants to meet her mother’s expectations, to be loved and noticed, to be “pretty”Tanaquill agrees to make Isabelle pretty, if she can successfully find the lost pieces of her heart, the pieces she cut away to satisfy the world. Isabelle must embark on a journey of self-discovery where she will be faced with fate, chance and risk at every turn. 

Jennifer Donnelly’s “Stepsister” is a really powerful story that every young woman would benefit from reading. It teaches you that, no matter what people tell you to be, always be yourself and enforces the message that beauty is only skin deep; that a woman’s worth should not be determined by her looks. It highlights the struggles women face in a man’s world and how much harder you have to work if you’re not considered ‘attractive’.

In a time of fairy-tale retelling overload, I was expecting “Stepsister” to be a bit ‘samey’ but I was very wrong. This feminist approach to the classic tale is one of a kind. It completely tears down the ideology that women can only better themselves through marriage and leaves you feeling truly encouraged and empowered after reading it. 

Donnelly’s writing flows beautifully throughout and manages to keep the fairy-tale aspect intact. The opening chapters as so powerful that you can’t help but to keep reading and the cruel, dark themes are set from the start. This story was well-developed and, even though the fairy-tale aspect was there, it felt relatable. I think Donnelly’s decision to set the story in France aided this. I also found that even though this tale is set hundreds of years ago, times have not changed that much. Women are still under immense pressure to be and look a certain way and are often told to aspire to marriage; this novel tells young women the complete opposite and I can’t praise it enough. 

Jennifer Donnelly’s characterisation is brilliant. Each character is distinct and three-dimensional which made the plot flow really well. I absolutely loved the character development with Isabelle. Her journey back to herself was so endearing and I loved watching her soften and break out of the hard shell that had formed around her. 

Something that I really enjoyed about this book was the personification of Chance and Fate. I loved seeing them as real characters battling it out over Isabelle’s future. It is a brilliant representation of real life and the idea that our futures are not predetermined but shaped by the choices we make and the chances we take. 

I thought the pace of “Stepsister” was brilliant. From the very start it had you flipping the pages eager to see the action unfold. The characters were introduced seamlessly without causing confusion and I felt really familiar with the setting and characters a couple of chapters in. There were some points where the writing felt a little bit padded and detail was unnecessarily added; this made the pace slow a little but it didn’t completely disengage me. 

Overall, I thought this book was fantastic and I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys fantasy, fairy-tales or feminism. With its powerful message and poignant themes I believe it belongs on every young woman’s bookshelf. “Stepsister” was my first encounter with Jennifer Donnelly and I have already ordered more of her books. It is not one to be missed!

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