REVIEW: Slipper by Hester Velmans
Her life is the inspiration for the world’s most famous story.
Lucinda, a penniless English orphan, is abused and exploited as a cinder-sweep by her aristocratic relatives. On receiving her sole inheritance—a pair of glass-beaded slippers—she runs away to France in pursuit of an officer on whom she has a big crush. She joins the baggage train of Louis XIV’s army, and eventually finds her way to Paris. There she befriends the man who will some day write the world’s most famous fairy tale, Charles Perrault, and tells him her life story.
There is more: a witch hunt, the sorry truth about daydreams, and some truly astonishing revelations, such as the historical facts behind the story of the Emperor’s new clothes, and a perfectly reasonable explanation for the compulsion some young women have to kiss frogs.
This is not the fairy tale you remember.
Dear Ms. Velmans,
This cover caught my eye. Then the blurb reminded me of another 17th century Real Life Fairy Tale retelling,“Bitter Greens,” that I read and enjoyed a few years ago. Like that book, this ain’t no Disney version. This harks from a time when fairy tales were warnings. Dark things happen. The language slips at times into modern vernacular such as in the blurb when “has a big crush” is used. This is mainly from the omniscient narrator and the feeling I got is that this is a modern storyteller recounting the fairy tale.
I had to keep reminding myself that Lucinda is only 16-17 during a lot of the bad decision making sections of the book. You can’t tell teenagers at this age very much as they still think they know it all and adults just don’t understand. Also, if you wish for it hard enough, fantasies and dreams will come true. No, not always. It’s very hard to watch Lucinda keep running into the brick walls of her desperate wishes but having watched a friend live through a modern edition (albeit not as dark for her daughter), I could understand. I still wanted to shake Lucinda a lot and implore her to open her eyes to reality but some lessons have to be learned.
More than just the Cinderella tale is used with FAIR WARNING that Donkey Skin is one of the tales – though Lucinda is not raped by her father there is a quasi relative (by marriage) involved. Lucinda’s assaults and her mental recovery from them might be problematic. She is initially numbed and shocked then realizes she needs to use someone’s desire for her to escape the situation and because she thinks she’s in love. I think she goes into a fog about it, enduring what she must because by this time she’s been trained by circumstances to feel she doesn’t deserve any more. She’s like Sleeping Beauty here. On a better note, her beloved nurse Bessie tells Lucinda over and over, it wasn’t your fault. You’re not to blame.
The historical detail is fairly good but this is not a sanitized view of the 17th century. There is dirt, disease – smallpox and the other pox are rampant, witch hunting, and sometimes disdain for women. Royalty is shown as grotesque and fawned upon by sycophants.
The bits and bobs of the tales are cleverly worked into the story – Lucinda’s relatives are the Steppys sisters – the last of whom was ugly, her beaded glass slippers are gifts from a grandmother she never knew and though they might appear early in the story, but they will dance in and out of it over time; the last appearance being the most poignant. And her prince – well he is charming (after an initial bad start).
Her Fairy Godmother has to fight charges of witch craft (which I though was a great nod to events of the 17th century). Bessie told Lucinda stories of princesses masquerading as paupers and goodness triumphing over evil and introduced her to the world of make-believe which generally helped Lucinda hold her head up in the face of adversity. Even if occasionally Lucinda tended to get lost in her fantasies of handsome princes.
This is an age when life is cheap and justice hard to come by. But John Prynce – the English do love “y” for “i” – sees beyond what the world looks for – wealth and appearances. He regards talent, honesty, great deeds and worthy causes as the measure of a person. Yet even he is not faultless. Thus he tries to make up for a fateful and terrible action early in his life and when he sees that Lucinda is in danger, he tries to come to her rescue by the means he has available to him. When he thinks he’s failed, he is devastated. When he feels he has let the worst happen to her, he is emotionally destroyed.
Lucinda’s reactions aren’t always the best but then she’s suffered a lot. She remarks to Bessie – “why is it the women who have to have patience, be sorry, act nice and see things the men’s way?” When John shows up in her life again, her reaction stuns him. After what she’s lived through, and after clawing her way back into some security, he can darn well go away. But then she does stop and think and realize that maybe she’s been directing her anger at the wrong person. Over the length of the book, Lucinda does grow and mature.
It was such fun to read the brief little notes at the end about the characters both real and imagined. The last is appreciated as some characters trod the story stage and then exited, thus leaving me wondering what fates (hopefully deserved) they met. Having read these – and paying close attention to who Lucinda painted into her commission for Louis XIV – I am satisfied.
Lucinda discovers some truths about herself by the time her HEA arrives. Alas they are ones many women fight against. Some aren’t pretty but she at last understands why she made some of her choices and hopefully this will keep her from repeating them. There are people Lucinda has also wronged and this she will have to live with. She and her prince are at last on the same page and ready to begin their life together. They know each others deepest and darkest secrets and I feel that nothing will keep them apart from now on. B