Monday, June 30, 2014

Review: The Stepsister's Tale by Tracy Barrett

Release date: June 24, 2014
Author info: Website | Twitter | Facebook
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Pages: 272
Format: Egalley
Source: Publisher provided through Netgalley
Buy the book: Barnes & Noble | Amazon | The Book Depository
What really happened after the clock struck midnight?

Jane Montjoy is tired of being a lady. She's tired of pretending to live up to the standards of her mother's noble family-especially now that the family's wealth is gone and their stately mansion has fallen to ruin. It's hard enough that she must tend to the animals and find a way to feed her mother and her little sister each day. Jane's burden only gets worse after her mother returns from a trip to town with a new stepfather and stepsister in tow. Despite the family's struggle to prepare for the long winter ahead, Jane's stepfather remains determined to give his beautiful but spoiled child her every desire. 

When her stepfather suddenly dies, leaving nothing but debts and a bereaved daughter behind, it seems to Jane that her family is destined for eternal unhappiness. But a mysterious boy from the woods and an invitation to a royal ball are certain to change her fate...

From the handsome prince to the evil stepsister, nothing is quite as it seems in Tracy Barrett's stunning retelling of the classic Cinderella tale.
The Stepsister's Tale is a retelling of Cinderella that's almost gritty, almost rough in its interpretation of the well-loved fairy tale, and it works. It's a fairy tale that's so associated with beauty and magic, thanks to Disney, that you would think a touch of dirt would take away its luster, but it has the opposite effect. And instead of shining a light on the cruelty of others and true love taking Cinderella away, The Stepsister's Tale highlights familial (especially sisterly) love and duty and works to show that the value of a person doesn't lie in how they're born or their title, but simply in who they are and who they choose to be.

The novel follows a general path of Cinderella, though many of the details are turned on their heads. The stepsisters aren't evil, just hard-working and want a little help. The mother isn't evil, either--maybe she's a little out of her mind, actually. The prince is not the kind of man a self-respecting girl wants to marry. The ball isn't glittering and immaculate. And even our Cinderella isn't the cinder maid left out from the ball out of spite. Happily ever after just may not include a royal wedding. I thought it was such fun wondering how Tracy Barrett was going to make things work out, because I knew I couldn't just expect the ending the fairy tale gives. From the first page you can tell this isn't that kind of book.

And what worked really well for me, too, is that the story is slow and rather uncomplicated. There aren't bunches of bells and whistles added to the retelling to make it different, instead making it simply a look at the story from a new perspective, one we never thought we'd sympathize with. It is slower in plot, but it worked for me because there's a lot of development of the world and life of the family, weaving smaller interactions and moments into the larger story. Jane is a no-nonsense kind of girl who gets things done and takes care of people without them asking.

Jane and Maude's mother is obsessed with their lost wealth and fallen status, insisting that they are ladies and should act as such, even though the girls know they're far from the stations they were born into. Isabella (our Cinderella) believes she's above the girls because of their appearance and manners. Their neighbors believe the Montjoys all think they're above the common people because they formerly had wealth. But the story shows time and time again that those born into wealth and power aren't better than those born with nothing and that the prejudices people form based on these circumstances are flawed.

AND, the romance is adorable. And every word that means cute and sweet. It's one of those with moments that made my heart beat faster and left my face with the stupidest grin. It's all the more endearing for its innocence and its optimism. I don't know what it is about Jane and Will's romance, but I just couldn't stop that grin each and every time they talked. All books need this romance, because I don't often find myself reacting to scenes like I did here.

If you like (or can stand, at least) stories that take a while to work into the action, The Stepsister's Tale is really a lovely retelling. It's simple in form and in execution, but all the lovelier for it, allowing the story and themes to speak for themselves. It retains a fairy tale tone, even as it comes and contradicts its source over and over. I just really enjoyed reading it, all the way through.

About the author:

Tracy Barrett is the author of numerous books and magazine articles for young readers. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree with honors in Classics-Archaeology from Brown University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Medieval Italian Literature from the University of California, Berkeley. Her scholarly interests in the ancient and medieval worlds overlap in her fiction and nonfiction works.

She teaches Italian, Women’s Studies, English, and Humanities at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. She occasionally manages to combine her two “lives,” as in her presentation at a conference on the Classics in children’s literature in Wales in July, 2009. 

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