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Sunday, October 07, 2007

What If Happily Ever After Wasn't All That Happy After All?

Everyone knows the story of Cinderella: a young peasant woman marries handsome Prince Charming after winning his hand with the help of her Fairy Godmother. The couple, of course, lives happily ever after. But, what if it didn't really happen that way? What if Cinderella earned the prince's attention through her own pluck and cleverness? And what if happily ever after wasn't all that happy after all? These questions form the backbone of Margaret Peterson Haddix's young adult novel, Just Ella.

Our heroine is Ella Brown, a 15-year-old girl who's engaged to marry handsome Prince Charming. Although she's thrilled to be luxuriating in the palace instead of waiting on the "Step Evils" (her stepmother and stepsisters, who made her their servant after the death of her father) hand and foot, she's beginning to realize that being a princess isn't all it's cracked up to be. For one thing, she's confined to the castle where her every movement is dictated by what is appropriate for a princess (needlework; bridal gown fittings; and stiff, chaperoned conversations with the prince) and what is not (mingling with servants; watching sporting events; and lifting a finger to do servants' work). Under the critical eye of Madame Bisset, her decorum instructor, Ella tries to mold herself into a perfect princess, but the strain is killing her. In addition to the stress of adjusting to this new life, Ella finds herself at the center of the castle's juiciest morsel of gossip - everyone seems to be twittering about how she bamboozled the prince through the use of her Fairy Godmother's magic. Knowing it was her own cleverness that got her into the castle, Ella finds the rumor downright insulting. "I'd done something everybody told me I couldn't," she thinks, "I'd changed my life all by myself. Having a fairy godmother would have ruined everything" (56). All of this, however, pales in comparison to the prince himself. Sure, he's handsome, but he doesn't seem to have an original thought in his gorgeous head. Worst of all, he's attracted to Ella only for her beauty. With relief, Ella realizes that not only is he not in love with her, but she's not the least bit in love with him.

The solution to Ella's miserable situation seems simple: tell the prince how she feels, break the engagement, and get on with life. To her surprise, it's not that simple. The Charming Family does not look kindly on scandal, a fact Ella discovers when she wakes up in the castle's dungeon. Madame Bisset informs her that she will be released only when she is ready to face her duties as a princess. Knowing she can never live such a confined life, Ella resolves to find her way out of the castle the same way she got herself into it - through her own skill and cunning.

Although Just Ella isn't my most favorite story by Haddix, I enjoyed reading this re-telling of Cinderella. I loved the idea of this novel. It answers all the questions Disney glossed over: How does a girl who has been so abused live life in a constant state of happiness and optimism? (Answer: She doesn't. She resents her stepmother/sisters) How do two people fall madly in love after dancing for a couple of hours? (Answer: They don't - it's merely lust) How does a commoner adjust to a completely different life as a princess? (Answer: Blood, sweat and tears). As always with Haddix's books, I found the most interesting part of this novel to be the deeper issues she explores, like the true nature of love, the true nature of evil, and the laziness of the overindulged.

Don't fret if you're looking for a quick, exciting read, because this story has that, too. The plot is lively, if somewhat predictable. It also features a wonderful heroine who has a keen mind and the courage to use it. All I'm saying is that this is a multi-faceted book, with many layers of meaning ... see why Haddix is my new favorite young adult author?

Grade: B+ because it was good, but not so good that I have to shout it from the rooftops


  1. I just saw this at the library last time I was there and hadn't heard of it before. Thanks for the reveiw. I'll definately have to check it out, I'm a fan of Haddix.

  2. Great review. I may have to pick this up sometime.

  3. Looks like fun! Thanks for the review!

  4. Hi Susan! I arrived here through your comment on Booklogged's (A Reader's Journal) 888 challenge and just spent some time browsing through your blog. Great place! Now I have to go back and add you onto my blogroll. Happy Reading! :)

  5. So, I'm assuming you don't believe in love at first sight?

    It sounds like an interesting book. I'll have to keep my eyes open for it.


  6. Susan this was a great review! I've never even heard of this book but I'll be sure to pick it up at the library or the bookstore next time I see it! Thanks!!

  7. CJ - That's a very interesting question. Do I believe in love at first sight? Hm...I guess I don't. My husband says that after the first night he and I hung out, he knew that I was "the one" for him, but that was after talking for hours. In Cinderella's case, she dances with the prince for a few hours - do they even talk? - then, he's so mad with love that he looks for her all over the kingdom. Then, according to Disney, they get married ASAP. So, I guess I have a hard time believing that two people can know each other well enough to get married after only ONE NIGHT. Of course, my husband would say this is exactly what happened to us, but we didn't get married until almost 3 years after our first date. So, I don't know what I think!

    In this book, though, Haddix points out that Prince Charming cares only about Ella's beauty. He doesn't care about her thoughts, desires, hobbies, etc. That's why she escapes the castle.

    Interesting question, CJ - what do the rest of you think? Do you believe in love at first sight?

  8. Her name is familiar, but I don't think I've ever read anything by Haddix. This sounds like a book I would enjoy. Thanks for the review!

  9. You've got a few books on here that I've enjoyed, such as Running Out of Time and Charlotte Doyle. I was actually introduced to both of these by my son, a 5th grader.

    Let me know if I can help you with any of your future book purchases through my website.

  10. i really liked this book when i read it seven or so years ago. i even included it on my list of books "about me" for the Something About Me reading challenge. (you can read why here.) you've written a great review!

    which of Haddix's others books are your favorites? i think i've read most, if not all, of them. :o)


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