All the Ever Afters: The Untold Story of Cinderella's Stepmother
In All the Ever Afters, author Danielle Teller turns one of our best-loved fairytales on its head. Here, we are given a new spin on the story of Cinderella and her wicked stepmother, and, while this particular retelling takes a lot of the magic out of the story, I still found it an enjoyable read.
Agnes is only ten years old when she is forced to leave her home and go to work at the local manor house. Her father is far too poor to provide for his children, so Agnes’ earnings as a laundress will go a long way toward keeping her family fed. Unfortunately, Agnes doesn’t do well at the manor, and the next four years of her life are pretty bleak. When she is fourteen, she gets the chance to work at a nearby abbey, and her life improves exponentially. There, Agnes begins to learn to read and do simple mathematics, skills rarely taught to women during Medieval times.
It is while she is living and working at the abbey that Agnes is seduced by Fernan, an older man who works as a messenger for the Abbess. Before long, Agnes finds herself pregnant with Fernan’s child, and she is cast out as a result. Fernan escorts her to a distant village where Agnes, using all her wits, manages to set herself up as a brewer of ales, and, for the next few years, her life is pretty stable. For the first time, Agnes is happy. She loves her two daughters with all her heart, and, while her relationship with Fernan isn’t exactly wonderful, Agnes manages to make it work for her.
When Agnes is nearly thirty, Fernan is killed in a tragic accident, and she is once again forced out of her home. Desperate to find a way to survive, she returns to the manor house where she once worked as a laundress and asks for employment. Fortunately, the Lord’s baby daughter Ella is in need of a nursemaid, and Agnes is hired to care for the child.
All the Ever Afters is a fantasy novel that reads a bit like historical fiction. It’s obvious Ms. Teller did a lot of research into the role of women in Medieval times, and she does a wonderful job bringing the time period to vivid life; I often felt transported back in time while reading the novel. I, however, prefer my fantasy with a certain amount of magic thrown in, and All the Ever Afters isn’t the least bit magical. Ms. Teller provides readers with mundane reasons for the happenings in the original fairytale, and I was disappointed by the lack of whimsy in the book.
In spite of the above criticism, I still found myself quite invested in Agnes’s story, and I loved the way the author managed to turn someone I was so ready to despise into someone I felt a great deal of sympathy for. Agnes’s life was incredibly hard, but she managed to come out on top thanks to her quick wits. I ended up admiring her quite a bit more than I expected to.
The same is true for Agnes’s daughters, the young women commonly known as Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters. Ms. Teller doesn’t make them out to be small-minded and vindictive; instead, they’re victims of superstition and general narrow-mindedness. One is persecuted because of her unusually dark skin, while the other is teased mercilessly about some physical deformities she sustained as a result of smallpox. If anyone is spoiled and cruel, it’s Ella, something I found quite surprising.
If you’re looking for a light-hearted read, All the Ever Afters won’t be the book for you. It’s quite a bit darker and heavier than I expected. Rape and domestic violence are common themes, so please be cautious if these things are triggering to you.
While I didn’t love everything about this retelling of the Cinderella story, I still recommend it to anyone looking for a new and different take on a beloved fairytale. The writing is evocative, and the story is quite compelling. If the author had included some magic along the way, it would have been pretty close to perfect.