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Literature / Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

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A novel by Gregory Maguire (also known for Wicked and Mirror, Mirror (2003)) and, later, a direct-to-TV movie, Confessions of an Ugly Sister is a revisionist rewriting of the story of Cinderella, focusing on the point of view of Iris and how she became the stepsister of the mysteriously beautiful Clara.

Taking place in 17th century Holland, Iris, her mentally challenged sister Ruth, and her mother flee an angry mob and start a new life with nothing but a determination to get a better life.

Iris sees the world through fanciful eyes, and still believes in fairy tales, causing her to question whether her new stepsister's beauty and grace may be supernatural.

The story contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Bittersweet Ending: Despite everything, no one's ending is truly happy or sad. Iris marries Caspar and becomes a painter, but dies relatively early in life. Clara and the prince also die young-ish, but leave a legacy for the Fishers and Cornelius. Ruth is provided for by Caspar and Iris while the latter is still alive. Margarethe is still alive at the end, but has gone blind. The Master never achieves fame and never loses his reputation.
  • Cinderella Plot: Though Clara's toiling in the ashes and dressing in rags was more out of being a brat than anything. Margaret pressures Iris to try and win over the prince at the ball instead of Clara because she knows Clara would leave her step-family to rot in poverty.
  • Changeling Fantasy: Clara thinks she's this. It's really just her dealing with the trauma of kidnapping.
  • Coming of Age Story: Iris grows more mature through out the book, starts taking up a craft, and starts having her first romantic feelings for the painter's apprentice.
  • Death by Childbirth: Henrika, Clara's mother. Though it is revealed that Margaret had also been poisoning her.
  • Diagnosed by the Audience: Even before the reveal that Ruth is the narrator, there are clues that she isn't as mentally challenged as everyone assumes she is. It's possible she's living with a condition like Cerebral Palsy, which affects motor skills and speech but not necessarily intellectual development.
  • Gray-and-Gray Morality: The van den Meers want to get rich. The Fishers want safety and comfort. Fate has other ideas.
  • Inspirationally Disabled: Averted, Ruth is not heartwarmingly disadvantaged, she isn't a savant trying to overcome the odds, and she isn't meant to tug at our heart strings. She is just a severely mentally disabled girl.
  • Kiddie Kid: Henrika deliberately keeps Clara in a childlike state in spite of her actually being in her mid-teens.
  • Lack of Empathy: Aside from basic loyalty to her biological parents, Clara's exile from the world has left her with an almost animalistic sense of self-preservation and indifference towards her step-family. Subverted at the finale when she performs her first genuinely selfless action.
  • Mama Bear: Margaret is not above anything when it comes to giving her and her daughters a better life. Also qualifies as a Knight Templar Parent.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The book starts off with its grip on reality being slightly loose, but it seems to generally be a normal world seen from the eyes of a over imaginative child. Eventually confirmed by Word of God: The book is Historical Fiction presented as a fairy tale.
  • Meaningful Name: Iris (the eye and flower) for her insight. Clara (clarity) in spite of her blindness. Ruth (pity and distress) because of her visible disability.
  • Noodle Incident: What happened to Clara in the windmill is alluded to several times, but the two accounts are both rather vague and contrary. It's never made certainly clear.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Either Ruth wasn't as mentally handicapped as she let on and her contemporaries in 17th century Holland assumed, or she eventually had a large breakthrough later on in life. It's possible she was living with a disability which affected her motor skills and speech but not her intellectual development.
  • Perspective Flip: A retelling of Cinderella, from the point of view of one of the stepsisters.
  • Potty Emergency: Clara has to desperately pee while ice skating with Iris. She is finally able to in an abandoned windmill, and this is accompanied by a descriptive sentence:
    Clara lifts her skirt to pee. The piss steams over an ancient pile of bird shit.
  • The Reveal: Ruth isn't as intellectually disabled as everyone assumed. She, not Iris, is the narrator.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Iris is still plain faced and homely, but she does end up having a quiet elegance to her when she goes to the ball.
  • Shrinking Violet: Iris and Clara, in different ways. Iris remains oblivious to her own brilliance while Clara, despite her perfect beauty, hates being looked at.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Played with. On the one hand, Clara wangsts at length about how she hates being looked at and that her beauty comes at such a high cost. Iris has limited sympathy, but has to admit that Clara's beauty has come at a fairly high price.
  • True Art Is Angsty: The Master, and his entire room full of paintings of deformed ugly people. invoked

The TV Movie version contains the following tropes: