Lucky me recently snatched up an advance reader’s copy of Danielle Teller’s new upcoming novel All the Ever Afters, the story of Cinderella as told by Cinderella’s “evil” stepmother, Agnes. This book is in a similar vein to Wicked, in that it deeply expands on, reinvents, and complicates the original fairytale in a way that feels very relevant and necessary, minus all the “bippity boppity boo.”
All the Ever Afters is written entirely in Agnes’s point of view, and it’s framed as her own personal account of her life from childhood to adulthood, interspersed with dairy entries that relay her current struggles at court. This story is essentially Agnes’s reclamation of a narrative that has been so twisted and distorted that her life at court after Cinderelle’s marriage is nearly unbearable.
We learn that Agnes was born into a poor, working class family, and she was forced to leave home and work as a laundry girl at Aviceford manor. There, she is horribly mistreated by the cruel laundress. There are no fairy godmothers or pumpkins that turn into carriages in this novel. It is through Agnes’s own ingenuity and strength of will that she manages to escape her nightmarish job and find work as a maid at the nearby abbey. She details how she is impregnated by a man who takes advantage of her, and how she gives birth to her daughters Charlotte and Matilda after finding work at an alehouse.
I don’t want to give away too many more details of the plot, but Agnes’s story is one of resilience and resourcefulness in the face of calamity. A lesser individual might have easily given in to her circumstances and accepted a life of great suffering for herself and her children, but Agnes strives to take advantage of any opportunity she can find—and so she eventually winds up as a nursemaid at Aviceford manor, where she will eventually marry the lord of the house and help raise his daughter, Ellafilda, after her mother’s death.
The depth of the characters, particularly Agnes, is what makes this new retelling a special one. Agnes is someone who has suffered greatly, but she never truly lets that define her. She is someone who dearly and tenderly loves her two daughters, Charlotte, born with what then was considered “unseemly” dark skin she inherited from her father (and let me just say, people of color in a fairytale?? Heck yes!), and Matilda, whose face is scarred from pox that she had as a child. Agnes considers her daughters to be beautiful, and wishes more than anything that they could be married and live happily, like the breathtakingly beautiful Ella will doubtless have every chance to do.
Agnes struggles to love Ella the way she loves her daughters—Ella can be a very difficult child. She likes to stay indoors, her thoughts often wander, she doesn’t like to play, she is extremely emotionally sensitive, and she is very particular. Agnes and her daughters certainly make mistakes in how they treat Ella, but the abuses described in the increasingly outlandish rumors told at court are gross exaggerations, and I found myself empathizing with all of the characters at certain points, even when I certainly didn’t agree with their actions.
Although this story is written as if it might almost be historical fiction—it is clear that Teller must have done a fair bit of research about how businesses, abbeys, and households of different social classes functioned during the time this story is set in—that doesn’t mean the prose lacks a magic of its own. Agnes finds great beauty amidst her struggles, and Teller really does this book justice by allowing her characters to revel in the magic of downpours, frog ponds, pebbles, and wildflowers.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this book is the way Teller so perfectly explores big themes that are especially relevant to fairytales and the story of Cinderella. Time and again, Teller revisits the question of storytelling, and the way that people construct narratives that are not entirely true, to romanticize and make sense of the world, and to see themselves in these “happily ever afters”. Tellerman’s commentary on beauty is just as fantastic, and she highlights the way that medieval society equated goodness and virtuosity to outer beauty, and sin and evil with so-called ugliness. We see this through the treatment of Charlotte and Matilda as they are bullied, harassed, and even threatened at times.
At the core of the story, love is the prevailing theme, and I think the love the characters have for each other is why this story doesn’t feel lacking at all in its absence of magic. Agnes, Charlotte, Matilda, and Ella are ultimately bound by their love for each other, and I think that beats mice transformed into horses any day.
All the Ever Afters is set to be published on May 22 by William Morrow Books. It will be available in hardcover for $26.99.
What’s your favorite fairytale retelling? Leave a comment and let me know!
Writer, reviewer, bookseller, book nerd extraordinaire. Fiction reader at Waxwing Magazine.