“Compelling fiction often obscures the humble truth.”
This quote from All the Ever Afters: The Untold Story of Cinderella’s Stepmother is a perfect summation of this wonderful book. Danielle Teller’s retelling of Cinderella from the viewpoint of her stepmother, Agnes, cleanly removes the magic from the old fairytale and focuses on one woman’s struggle for agency when all the odds are against her.
All the Ever Afters begins with the stepmother, Agnes, as a peasant child leaving home to work as a laundry maid in a manor. From that point on, Agnes learns that nothing will simply be given to her – that she has to fight for every victory, no matter how small. As the story unfolds, Agnes grows into a young woman, becomes a mother, and inevitably becomes stepmother to the strange, fey Ella.
For me, origin stories tend to be pretty hit or miss (regardless of the medium – books, television, etc.). Gregory Maguire’s Wicked gave me mixed feelings. I found Disney’s Maleficent to be over-the-top and dull. Often, I find that attempts to humanize villains with origin stories either weaken the original story or fail to gain my sympathy (to quote Jake Peralta: “Cool story, still a murder.”)
I was happily surprised by how quickly I loved All the Ever Afters. I came across this book when, aimlessly looking for something to read, I asked a Barnes and Noble employee for a book with lyrical prose. She brought this to me straightaway and now I need to track her down and pin a gold star on her. Teller’s prose is gorgeous – evocative, poetic, and concise. As a reader, I adore prose that turns a book into a work of art, and Teller’s writing is a perfect example of that.
In addition to the writing style, the characters were a joy to read. Agnes is resourceful, responsible, and conniving when she needs to be. Her two daughters, Charlotte and Matilda, are by turns grave and fierce (and the reasoning behind their being branded ‘ugly’ instantly endears you to them). Ella’s father, Emont, is an affectionate but ineffectual drunk, and a prime example of how privilege is given without regard for work or merit.
My favorite bit of characterization had to be Ella herself. In the original story, Ella is usually portrayed as a kind-hearted victim who is whisked away by her prince in her hour of need. (Side note: I love how Disney’s updated Cinderella focuses on fighting abuse with kindness.) In All the Ever Afters, Ella is a very different child, with behaviors suggestive of autism: a particular fixation on one subject, poor at reading social cues, a rigid respect for order, and stimulating when emotionally overwhelmed. This take on Ella was respectful, nuanced, and interesting.
My only complaint about All the Ever Afters is that the end failed to drive the theme of independence and agency home. I won’t spoil the end, but this theme seemed to collide with another one – motherhood – which doesn’t make the ending bad, just not what I would have preferred.
If you’re looking for a book with sympathetic characters, a realistic take on a fairy tale, and feminist overtones, check out All the Ever Afters.