It’s been so many years since I’ve read anything by Donna Jo Napoli — I think more than a decade — so I was pleased to find that she still “held up” after all this time, especially since I stopped reading her because I seem to have OD’d and found her books not “doing it” for me the same way they used to.
It’s clear from Napoli’s retellings that she has the utmost respect for her source material, and I admire that. She doesn’t try too hard to find a “gimmick” or “twist” to make her retellings sensational; instead, she simply sinks deeply and richly into the source material, particularly the psychology of the characters and the seemingly bizarre choices they make.
This is the first time I’ve read a Cinderella retelling that harkens back to some of the earliest, Chinese source materials, and I really liked the change of setting. The story is still there — the stepmother, a half sister, an orphaned and disadvantaged daughter — but there’s a subtly different light cast upon it. At first glance this book seems to be less dark than some of Napoli’s other work, but the scenes with the raccoon kittens and the ultimate fate of Xing Xing’s fish prove that Napoli still does not shy away from the more disturbing aspects of fairy tales.
Napoli’s characters are not two-dimensional — Xing Xing’s sister, who suffers the pain of bound feet, is a sympathetic character that Xing Xing genuinely pities and cares for. The stepmother, while dismissive and sometimes cruel to Xing Xing, is also made more believable for the pressure she feels to marry off her daughter so that the family can survive in a culture where three women alone are worth very little. Her cruelty is interspersed with moments of kindness, so that one does not feel the sort of simmering hatred of her that the stepmother usually inspires. It would have been soul-crushing to live under her roof, just the same.
There is a lot of buildup, so that the ending (the “ball,” the search for the owner of the shoe, etc.) seems rushed. I never really “bought” the character of the prince, nor did I feel totally confident Xing Xing was heading off to a happily ever after. But since the romance aspect is probably the least alluring to me in the Cinderella story, it didn’t bother me too much to have it downplayed here.