This novel is a work of fiction loosely based Cinderella, and set against a very real historical backdrop. First, some background information. The book is set in seventeenth century Holland. The Protestant Reformation began in the previous century with the help of people like Martin Luther and John Calvin. The latter was especially important where the Netherlands were concerned. There was a profusion of Calvinists who fled to Holland to escape religious persecution in western Europe. Calvinists believed in the predestination, among other things. Additionally, they were known for being adamantly against singing, dancing, art, et cetera. Also, Holland at this time was an economic powerhouse of Europe. They had one of the largest port cities of the time, which was a very important trade center. Tulips were being imported by the ton. Even though they are now recognized all across the globe as the symbol of the region, they were not always. The plant is not even native to the area. In order to get all you can out of this book, it is important to understand the historical context.
At the beginning, and on through until the very end, the narrator’s identity is unknown. In retrospect, I think I sort of knew in the middle somewhere, but it isn’t said explicitly until the book is nearly over. What we do know is that the narrator has been there. They are telling the story after it has happened, not during. They experienced the events first hand, and are looking back on them now, sometimes fondly and other times not, but with the intent of informing us of the truth. They have no desire to leave out the undesirable bits because then we have an incomplete picture. This story simply would not work if pieces of the puzzle were missing.
As previously mentioned, this work is also based on Cinderella. The protagonist is Iris, one of the “ugly stepsisters.” She arrives in Holland, poor, with her mother Margarethe and her sibling Ruth. They have fled from England after the mysterious death of her father. Eventually, they are taken in by a Catholic painter. He is an interesting character. Even though he is quite talented, he has been out of work lately because no one wants the images he wishes to paint. He wants to paint images of Jesus and Mary to decorate churches and to adorn families’ homes so they will not forget. Since he lives in a Calvinist area, the only paintings people want any more are unrealistically beautiful self portraits. He decides then to paint those people who he feels are godforsaken: ugly old women, dwarves, people with limbs missing, the list goes on. Members of the gallery of God’s mistakes, he calls them. This is what leads him to Iris. She is the most boring looking person he has ever encountered.
Later, at a gallery show of his, his work draws the attention of a wealthy tulip merchant. This man welcomes Margarethe and her children into his household to work for him. His daughter, Clara, is the Cinderella of this story. She is exceptionally beautiful, and Maguire’s work examines the question of whether beauty is a blessing or a curse.
This book took me several tries to get through. I found the beginning to be a little slow, and hard to follow at times. It was worth persevering though. I really enjoyed it for a variety of reasons. At the time when I read it most recently, we were studying the Protestant Reformation movement so I got to connect what I was learning in school to something I was reading for fun. The language is… fun. He uses sophisticated vocabulary without falling into the trap of overwriting, and he is able to describe things in such a way that I feel I can see them precisely the way he did when he was writing it. The characters are complex and relatable. There doesn’t seem to be anyone who is extra, or who seems out of place. Sometimes that happens and it is very distracting. Speaking of characters, there is a romantic love component but it is subtle. I like that romance doesn’t interfere with the primary storyline, but rather complements it.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is prepared for a slight time investment, and promises not to skim. At all. Not even a little bit. If you miss anything, you’re in trouble. Don’t do it.