Cinderella's Dress is the first of Shonna Slayton's Fairy-tale Inheritance novels. These books are historical fiction with a splash of fantasy. In particular, Cinderella's Dress takes place in the mid-1940s, and is almost entirely set in New York City. The story primarily follows the protagonist, young Kate Allen, as she begins to learn about her family's mysterious heritage as the caretaker's for Cinderella's (magical) dress. (Or rather, as a bit of spoiler, dresses; there's more than one.)
To put my overall thoughts regarding this novel succinctly: Did I go into this book with high hopes, thinking that the premise seemed really promising? Yes. Was I disappointed? Absolutely. Did I keep reading, in the hopes that it would get better and at least somewhat redeem itself by the end? Of course. Did it get worse instead of better? Unfortunately, yes. Would I recommend this book? No. Will I read any of the other fairy-tale books Slayton has written? Certainly not.
Now, to try to express my feelings regarding Cinderella's Dress at more length. This is a book set during World War II, featuring characters (Kate's great aunt and great uncle) who have escaped from Poland (and one of whom--her great uncle--is Jewish), and touching on the powerful themes of preservation and loss with respect to cultural heritage, both in terms of physical artifacts and of traditions or crafts. The fairy-tale aspects very well could have served to highlight and help articulate some very significant, very real aspects of the setting Slayton selected for this story. A very dark and difficult topic could have been made more approachable for a juvenile or young adult audience via being explored within the familiar context of the Cinderella story. The premise, in short, holds a lot of promise, with the appropriate careful handling. It's difficult to get a historical fiction right to begin with--a lot of historical research needs to be done to get facts about the setting correct. Add to that the fact that the historical setting is World War II, and the amount of due diligence needed to accurately and respectfully depict this time period is only amplified; any book that takes place during the Holocaust cannot be approached lightly. Further adding the fact that the author is writing about not only a time that is foreign to her, but about cultures which are foreign to her (Polish and Jewish, in particular), and the need for care to be taken increases yet again. The core of my complaints about and concerns over Cinderella's Dress center on my impression that what could--and should--have been a powerful, educational, and thoughtful work instead comes across as insipid, superficial, and rather disrespectful.
The details Slayton includes to immerse readers in the time period, and to depict the places and peoples involved, feel a lot like superficial window dressing (much like the windows Kate is so desperate to help design and decorate at the department store where she works). Rather than truly feeling immersed in the mid-1940s with realistic characters with whom I could really find a connection, I felt that their descriptions and habits were put in more as a kind of self-satisfied proof that the author had totally done some research. Instead of really living in World War II era New York City with these characters, I felt like Slayton was continually making a point to slip in the minutiae of her research into the time; the focus was on the fact small details of fashion, slang, popular culture, etc. were included at all rather than on meaningfully integrating those details in ways that really mattered for the characters and the plot.
More egregious than that, though, was the sense that the depiction of Polish and Jewish heritages (language, traditions, etc.) was similarly superficial. I was also uncomfortable with the way refugees from the war who had escaped Europe and made their way to America were treated; there was an implication that they needed some sort of excuse to have fled rather than staying and directly fighting/resisting in their home country. It's okay that Kate's great aunt and great uncle fled Poland because they're too old to have been able to fight (plus Cinderella's dresses are just too important to risk). It's okay that a Jewish carpenter from Poland fled because he made sure to build some nice hidden trap doors before he left. I'm not saying that touching on the issues of survivor guilt or emphasizing the things people did to try to resist invasion and help those endangered by it is problematic or wrong; I'm saying that the way Slayton put things implied an underlying assumption that it genuinely would have been selfish and bad to flee the invasion of Nazi forces without having such an excuse, and that very much doesn't sit well with me.
Apart from the issues I had with the way the setting of the story was handled, I took issue with the story itself. I'm certain that I would detest Kate Allen regardless of the setting in which she was presented to me. Detesting the protagonist of a book isn't inherently a bad thing. The real problem is that the way this protagonist was presented and the way the plot played out make it clear that the author expects readers to sympathize with and to like Kate, despite Kate very much acting the part of a selfish, superficial, and unforgivably stupid person. While I could tell Slayton was trying to depict Kate making a completely understandable (and pretty justifiable) foolish mistake, I was utterly disgusted by that same 'mistake' and found it to be an incomprehensible and spectacularly unrelatable act of carelessness. Kate then repeated this careless act in escalating degrees two more times. To make matters even more infuriating, Kate was ultimately rewarded for her thoughtlessness and selfishness, with the end result being that the positive resolution of the plot only came because she had been so spectacularly awful. From the way Slayton writes her, I can tell that I'm supposed to relate to and like Kate, but instead I actively despised Kate; this disconnect between authorial intent and the reality of my experience as a reader made the book dissatisfying and uncomfortable to read.
Cinderella's Dress feels like a very white Christian American take on a story that should more properly have been a Jewish Polish tale. Kate is a the white Christian American girl who's kind of interested in her family's heritage, but doesn't really understand or even respect it, and she wants (and, in this story, very much receives) brownie points just for showing any interest at all--even when that interest is actively damaging to the heritage involved. If that was portrayed as a problem, that would be fine (and realistic, and interesting to critique and explore). Instead, though, Slayton writes as though we'll identify with instead of criticizing Kate--and I get the sense that the author very much does identify with Kate and thinks that she's totally understandable and even worthy of praise.
In summary, without going into so much detail as to provide spoilers (in case anyone here does decide to give this book a try): Cinderella's Dress felt like an insipid and ultimately disrespectful depiction of the historical setting, and a waste of the potential the combination of that setting with the premise of the plot involved could have had. The protagonist was unlikeable and unrelatable. I enjoyed it even less due to the disappointment of the waste of such an interesting premise; if it hadn't tried to be anything more than an incredibly shallow World War II era young adult romance, I'd have far fewer criticisms of it.
As much as I wanted to enjoy this book going into it, I ultimately cannot recommend it. Want to read a WWII-set fairy-tale novel? Read Jane Yolen's Briar Rose instead.
Elizabeth Wilcox. Writer, Avid Role-Player, Amateur Mixologist. Survivor.