I came to Gregory Maguire's fairy tale retellings via a somewhat unusual route. Whereas most of Maguire's fans began with his take on L. Frank Baum's Oz, in particular through the novel Wicked and its incredibly successful Broadway musical adaptation, I began with his Cinderella retelling: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. After falling in love with that book, I eagerly devoured Wicked and was very excited to receive the gift of his then-newly-published book Mirror, Mirror (published 2003). I'll admit that I came into my first reading of Maguire's Snow White retelling with certain expectations. Both Confessions and Wicked subverted the tales upon which they were based by giving the traditional 'villains' of those tales voice, and providing them opportunity to be the heroines in their own story. In particular, I expected that Mirror, Mirror might have a similar approach to its fairy tale as Confessions; I anticipated that Maguire would make use of an historical setting where any of the magical elements of the tale are eliminated in favor of a more realistic take on the tale. These expectations were very much wrong; despite surface similarities, Mirror, Mirror is very different from Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. Revisiting this book over a 15 years later, I am better able to recognize just why it was that reading Mirror, Mirror left me with an uncomfortable feeling of disappointment, as though I were the one who had bitten into a glossy apple only to taste a poisonous bitterness.
I will not go into full detail on my thoughts regarding Mirror, Mirror here, both to limit spoilers for those who might want to approach this novel for the first time, and because I will be saving much of what I have to say for my Book Club discussion with Mary (which will be posted this weekend in the Enchanted Garden). What I will focus on here is providing an overview of what to expect going into this book, and of the rather mixed feelings I have with respect to it.
Mirror, Mirror begins in a way that is, indeed, very reminiscent of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, in that it is clear that the setting for this tale is an actual historical place and time. I have written about the primary places and historical figures Maguire includes in my post in the Enchanted Garden. However, it deviates almost immediately as fantastical elements which would be treated as superstition in Confessions are portrayed as simple fact--a theme which compounds throughout the book as supernatural creatures and occurrences with no possible natural explanation become increasingly prominent. The most prominent way in which Mirror, Mirror differs from books such as Wicked and Confessions, however, is in the portrayal of the villain of the tale. If Maguire had kept with the precedent he set up in his previous books, readers might expect that the protagonist of Mirror, Mirror would be the 'evil' stepmother/queen in the tale. At the very least, they might expect that this character would be humanized in a way that leaves readers wondering at the fairness of her characterization as the antagonist. However, instead of taking the fictional character of the 'evil queen' and granting her a chance to be understood in a more positive light, Maguire takes an actual historical figure (Lucrezia Borgia) and dehumanizes her into someone as vain, self-obsessed and sinister as the queen in the classic Grimm tale.
Mirror, Mirror can be uncomfortable to read at times because of how Maguire deals with sexuality, especially of pre-pubescent and pubescent girls. Part of this can be understood as deliberately shedding a light on what was historical reality. Lucrezia Borgia was married at the age of 13, after all. However, something about the way Lucrezia is portrayed, in particular, was deeply unsettling to me. There’s a judgmental undertone to descriptions of her dying her hair and taking care with her appearance in other ways. She was clearly victimized at a very young age by both her older brother and others within the context of the story. However, she is very much depicted as a jealous, heartless woman who has turned her own attractiveness into a tool to manipulate others for her own gain, and who cannot truly see anything outside of herself.
In contrast, whereas Bianca de Nevada (Snow White) is similarly sexualized, Maguire portrays this as an imposition laid upon her and something to which she is exposed against her will rather than something internal to her character. Much like the white color for which she is named is actually a reflection of every color, Bianca is a mirror reflecting back the character of those who look upon her. Bianca herself is 'pure' and, really, somewhat featureless. Things happen to her and around her rather than her truly causing the action of her own tale.
I could write an entire essay exploring the symbolism and themes within Mirror, Mirror. Much like the onions that Maguire frequently references and uses for imagery and metaphor throughout it, there are layers upon layers which can be picked apart to get to the core of this book. Perspective, color, light, identity, and sexuality are only some of the themes on prominent display throughout the novel. I will explore some of my thoughts on these themes in the Book Club discussion to follow.
If you are looking for a somewhat surreal, dark, adult fairy tale retelling, then Mirror, Mirror might be just the read for you. If you are looking for a twist that does some interesting new thing to the story of Snow White, turning it on its head the way Wicked and Confessions do with their respective tales, you are likely to be disappointed. If you are a fan of historical fiction, particularly of the Italian Renaissance, then this could either be a very interesting or a very frustrating read for you, depending upon how you view the liberties Maguire takes with the historical figures presented.
I would not recommend Mirror, Mirror for light reading. While it is a very rich book for readers willing to plumb the depths of the imagery and themes Maguire employs, it is not at all the escapist fantasy that many fairy tale retellings are. It may very well leave you feeling unsettled as you read--not a bad thing for a novel to do, but certainly something to keep in mind when determining whether/where on your reading list to place this book.