There are a lot of Cinderella retellings out there. Ella Enchanted is one of my favorites (the book, not the movie, although the movie was good as well). Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix is a version of the fairy tale set after the “Happily Ever After.” It’s clever, a little cutting, and fun to read.
Ella is miserable. She’s beautiful and caught the prince’s attention at the ball, escaped her evil stepmother and stupid stepsisters, and is living a life of luxury as the prince’s fiancée, but her life in the palace is almost as unbearable as her life as a slave. She’s traded poverty with a gilded cage featuring impossible expectations and ridiculous societal rules. It might be time for a real change, for her to finally wrangle her own future into something she truly wants. But then, escaping fairy tale hell might not be as easy as she’d hoped.
Just Ella has a good premise, the idea that maybe Cinderella wasn’t happy with life as a princess. The prince, in this version, isn’t some hero but part of the problem. However, the execution of this cute idea was a little…underwhelming/uneven.
Ella is by far the best character and has the most depth. She’s not some wilting miss who needs to be saved, but a strong, spunky woman who can figure out things for herself. But it takes her a while to get to some hard conclusions. And can you blame her? Giving up Prince Charming and a life of luxury can’t be easy, even if the prince is a stupid, flat character. Just like the one in the Disney movie actually. It takes Ella a while to see beyond the prince’s beauty to what’s beneath, which isn’t pretty.
Then there’s Jed Reston, one of Ella’s instructors in being a princess and the heir to Lord Reston. He’s also unhappy with the future written for him. He’d rather help refugees than fill his father’s shoes. While Jed is clearly Ella’s new love interest, he’s just not as fully developed as Ella. In fact, I barely cared about him as a character. I grew a little attached toward the end, but that’s only because the plot finally focused on him for the first time.
The Storyline. (Spoilers)
The first half of the book was too slow, focusing on the minutiae of Ella’s life in the castle, and the last part was rushed. Plus, not nearly enough was said about the relationship between Ella and Jed. The best part about this (rather large) section was her friendship with Mary, a serving girl.
The book only gets interesting when Ella makes a decision to leave the high life and is consequently imprisoned. She escapes (through a hideous hole) and goes on a journey to the borders of the kingdom where she’s hoping to stay in a war refugee camp until she figures out what to do with her life (and, bonus, Jed happens to be there running the camp—his passion). However, this journey is way too close to the end and not given the space it deserves. This is when Ella and Jed’s relationship has the time to progress, but we don’t actually see it because it’s all rushed. In fact, half of the boring in-the-palace section should have been cut and the rest expanded.
There were a couple of good quotes I’d like to share:
“People would rather believe in fairy godmothers and divine intervention than to think that you took charge of your own destiny.”
“Love is a wondrous thing. It moves mountains and stills a baby’s cries. It beats inside every human’s heart, yet is more precious than gold. It cannot be bought or sold or stolen. It keeps us alive.”
There was a lot lacking in this book, but it does talk about a girl who forges her own destiny despite ridiculous restrictions, and that’s a valuable lesson.