book review: all the ever afters

All the Ever Afters: The Untold Story of Cinderella's Stepmother by Danielle Teller
William Morrow, 384 pp.
Published May 22, 2018

DISCLAIMER: I received a free digital ARC of this title from the publisher via Edelweiss+ for review purposes. This did not inform or influence my opinion in any way.

We all know the story of Cinderella. Or do we?

As rumors about the cruel upbringing of beautiful newlywed Princess Cinderella roil the kingdom, her stepmother, Agnes, who knows all too well about hardship, privately records the true story. . . .

A peasant born into serfdom, Agnes is separated from her family and forced into servitude as a laundress’s apprentice when she is only ten years old. Using her wits and ingenuity, she escapes her tyrannical matron and makes her way toward a hopeful future. When teenaged Agnes is seduced by an older man and becomes pregnant, she is transformed by love for her child. Once again left penniless, Agnes has no choice but to return to servitude at the manor she thought she had left behind. Her new position is nursemaid to Ella, an otherworldly infant. She struggles to love the child who in time becomes her stepdaughter and, eventually, the celebrated princess who embodies everyone’s unattainable fantasies. The story of their relationship reveals that nothing is what it seems, that beauty is not always desirable, and that love can take on many guises.

Lyrically told, emotionally evocative, and brilliantly perceptive, All the Ever Afters explores the hidden complexities that lie beneath classic tales of good and evil, all the while showing us that how we confront adversity reveals a more profound, and ultimately more important, truth than the ideal of “happily ever after.”

All too often, it's the villains who emerge as the most interesting characters in fairy tales. How could they be so evil in the face of such innocence? In the case of Agnes—later known as the Evil Stepmother in Cinderella's story—she wasn't evil at all. In Teller's hands she becomes a pseudo-orphan, sent away from home to work at the lord's manor at an early age. Agnes spends the rest of her life overcoming the nearly insurmountable obstacles placed in her path by virtue of her social station and sex. While All the Ever Afters draws on a popular fairy tale for its characters, its treatment of Agnes and her slow climb from peasant to lady creates a novel that reads more as historical fiction than fantasy.

Every magical element is done away with, explained as the embellishment of court gossip following Ella's marriage to the prince. Gone are her loving parents as well: the mother's death carries with it a shameful stigma and her father, though doting at times, is little more than a weak-willed drunkard. These count as some of the gentler changes or additions. Agnes endures cruel treatment from the laundress whom she labors for, suffering thrashings after mistakes considered particularly egregious. Eventually she manages to secure a position at the abbey that oversees the region and it's there that her path to Ella and a position in the landed gentry truly begins.

Unlike the familiar story, Agnes does not begin life with avaricious designs. She wishes only to avoid hunger and cold, and to benefit from the companionship of others. For a time the abbey fulfills these humble needs; thinking to prolong her happiness, Agnes petitions the abbess to stay and become a nun, only to be refused on account of her low birth. A pregnancy outside of wedlock forces her to depart the abbey and, gradually, establish herself as an alewife in a village brewery. Carefully considered lies cement a modest, yet noble, lineage that assures her future advancement. The more security Agnes gains for herself and her children, the stronger fear's influence becomes. She must scheme and scrape for every small advantage; by contrast, the delicate and beautiful Ella drifts through life as if on a cloud, far above the mess of a common woman's struggle to survive.

To call All the Ever Afters a re-telling does it a disservice. Although it revisits a familiar fairy tale, there is no interesting tweak or modern update as impetus. Teller seems to look on Cinderella the same way we might ponder gods and their myths from ancient civilizations: as rationalizations for the unexplained. The slippers, the carriage, the romance: all of these narrative touchstones are grounded in recognizable adolescence and the small battles fought within families every day. To outsiders those explanations are either too banal or too inscrutable to survive multiple tellings: hence, Cinderella.

For all its nuance, All the Ever Afters may struggle to find an audience. The favorite princess factors into the story mostly as a spoiled child or sheltered wife, while the undeniable guiding structure of the original tale may put off readers in search of a more authentic historical fiction. For those less picky—or willing to give something different a chance—Teller skillfully sets aside all the Disney trappings without settling for a grimdark alternative. What emerges is the sympathetic portrait of a woman forced to claw her way into a position of tenuous security, ultimately confronted with a child whose good fortune seems divine by comparison.


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