Tuesday, May 22, 2018

ARC Review: All the Ever Afters: The Untold Story of Cinderella's Stepmother by Danielle Teller

Pub. Date:May 22, 2018
Publisher:William Morrow
Length:384 pages

All the Ever Afters: The Untold Story of Cinderella's Stepmother is Danielle Teller's fiction debut*, and she certainly starts off with a unique premise and interesting tale. Teller is a former doctor with some impressive institutions on her curriculum vitae, and I am a sucker for a brainiac fiction author. So this was a book that I was highly anticipating once William Morrow brought it to my attention.

As you can tell from the title, this is the story of Agnes, the well-known evil stepmother to beloved princess and cinder girl, Cinderella. But All the Ever Afters provides an alternate view, and I enjoyed the reimagining of the story through Agnes' eyes. This is not a romance, nor is it a story I would recommend for children. It tackles some serious subject matter, adult situations, and I think will be appreciated by more mature fantasy and fairytale fans.

We first meet Agnes when she is embarking on life as an impoverished laundry girl at Aviceford Manor at the tender age of 12(ish). The story will follow Agnes throughout her life, her many struggles, her children, how she became stepmother to the beautiful Elfida (Ella), and what happened after Ella was married to Prince Henry and ensconced at the palace.

Agnes' life was indeed a sad and gray tale, the life of a serf bound in servitude to the lord of the manor. Despite this sad beginning, Agnes' determination and grit impressed me. I  no longer see her as the evil stepmother, but a downtrodden girl and woman trying to better her circumstances through hard work and intelligence. I liked that Agnes' intelligence was inherent. She didn't have the opportunity for a great education, but she was clever and found ways to learn nonetheless. 

I thought the decision to include a relationship with Fernan was an interesting one. While I did not understand Agnes' feelings for him, his heritage gave an interesting aspect to the story. Giving Agnes multi-cultural children allowed the author to highlight social issues in the story, and provided a twist on the story of the well-known "ugly stepsisters". Seeing the difficulties the girls faced growing up, and learning the tragedies of their disfigurement, made them very sympathetic characters. Charlotte and Matilda were actually the least objectionable characters in the entire story. I quite liked them.

Overall, Agnes was painted in shades of gray, as a flawed woman struggling to survive. She was very sympathetic, but she didn't always make the right choices. She was a devoted mother who wanted the best for her children, which required sacrifice and difficult choices. This story was told from a more realistic standpoint... in a historical time period when women could rarely claim independence and had to rely on the decisions of men to make it through life. One thing that was unclear to me was Agnes' always having to rely on someone, particularly with regard to the alehouse. Her venture was profitable, so did she not have any savings from those years? I felt like that was glossed over in the story.

Ella's story and personality is seen from a different angle. She is the naive, spoiled, and somewhat simple (but beautiful) daughter of the lord of Aviceford Manor. While she was still beloved of the people for her beauty and marriage to Prince Henry, she didn't have much depth. I don't want to say she was self-absorbed... it's more that she was oblivious to the trials and tribulations of others, and how her actions and words may effect those around her. Prince Henry isn't the Prince Charming of old either, but he only appears in the story peripherally.  

Overall, I enjoyed this interesting twist on an old fairytale. It was told in the vein of Gregory Maguire's Wicked, making a previously hated character more relatable and likable. Although I have to say that I enjoyed this story much more than Wicked, which I found to be somewhat strange and difficult to read.

*Dr. Teller is also author of the non-fiction work, Sacred Cows: The Truth about Divorce and Marriage.  

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