Cinderella’s stepmother gets her due in ‘All the Ever Afters’
By Lou Fancher
Good and terrible things coexist in everyday people and their lives. Which means that a realistic account of life—or a realistic retelling of a classic fairy tale—must drop the “happily ever after” ending and promise “truthfully ever after.”
And so the truth-seeking story goes in Palo Alto-based writer Danielle Teller’s first novel, “All the Ever Afters: The Untold Story of Cinderella’s Stepmother” (Morrow, $26.99, 384 pages).
Teller set aside an established medical career as a pulmonary doctor and researcher five years ago to write full time. Nevertheless, she plays surgeon still, extracting the (formerly) villainous stepmother as protagonist and skillfully excising the classic story’s myths, magic and misconceptions.
Teller, 49, is co-author with her husband, Google X CEO Astro Teller, of “Sacred Cows,” a nonfiction book about marriage and divorce. Stepping out solo into well-researched fiction shows Teller in complete command. “Ever Afters” offers a dynamic plot, intriguing characters, facts and language accurate to the medieval era and surprising depth as it sheds light on gender and class struggles experienced by people in the Middle Ages.
The life of Agnes, we learn, began as a servant girl whose street smarts, head for finances and yes, large heartedness eventually result in her becoming the hard-working wife of a lord and stepmother of Ella, aka Cinderella. Teller slays the easily-digestible ugly-evil personas of the stepsisters and grafts sympathetic but not sugar-coated, rational explanations: Charlotte is ostracized for a darker-than-lily-white complexion, Matilda scorned for scars left by smallpox. Their suffering is real, and society is doubly condemned for prejudice, especially when it comes to economic status and women’s outward appearance. Ella remains a vital, secondary character as daughter of the Mother of the local abbey. The tale’s darker angles emanate from their prickliness, layering the stiffness of formal religion with mysticism, magic, human psychology and, in the case of Ella, society’s and Agnes’ less-than-perfect response to people who display atypical behavior related to OCD or autism.
It’s a hefty package that reads swiftly, arguably because Teller has always been a tremendous reader. “I grew up in a small town in Ontario, north of Toronto,” she says in a phone interview. Due to her father’s occupation working for a Canadian chemical company, the family moved five times before Teller graduated from high school. “In Quebec, the library was in a trailer, very small. I read all the children’s books quickly and moved on to adult books way over my head. One was about an actress who played Ophelia in ‘Hamlet.’ Not wanting to play it somber and depressed, as the director wanted, she played it flamboyantly.”
Most to her liking were science-fiction books by Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and others. “It was wonderful escape through a fantastic realm from my emotionally fraught middle and high school world. It was concept building, with big ‘What Ifs?’ They weren’t primarily focused on relationships between people. There weren’t romances. I liked that simple world, not the emotional, thorny issues I was wrestling with in my life.”
Which explains in part her decision to follow her father’s path into science. “ I always saw my parents on opposite sides of the spectrum. My mom wanted to talk totally about feelings and my friends. My dad always wanted to talk about science. He’d get out graph paper to explain a subject. I gravitated to his side: I didn’t want to talk about mushy stuff.”
But she hangs on to her mother’s respect for literature, which included strict rules to never flatten a book. “She’d be horrified if we broke the spine, and we weren’t allowed to read comic books, unless they were written in French, which would improve our study of the language.”
Fearing that she “didn’t have a writer inside” and watching her two older brothers struggle as musicians, Teller chose medicine. “I wanted a paycheck at the end of the month,” she says.
For someone attracted to predictable outcomes, surprises dominate Teller’s life path. If becoming divorced with two children was the first unexpected “jump,” a second marriage to a man with two children of his own and leaving a job she adored in Boston to move to the Bay Area, write full time and blend their families, was an unimaginable hurdle.
Writing Agnes’ story rather than her own gave her distance as she sought to dispel the original tale’s black-and-white notions about stepparents. “I’d never thought about being a stepparent. If I had given it thought, I would have assumed it’s not that different from being a parent,” she says. “The biggest difference I discovered is that you’re starting out as strangers. You don’t have an automatic bond that you have with your biological or adoptive child. With my own kids, it felt evolutionary, an instinctive urge to protect. It hadn’t occurred to me that it’s like having your kid’s friend live with you, and you’re their parent. Plus, my stepchildren already had loving parents; (I was) the third wheel.”
Even so, she says her stepchildren are nothing like Ella. “It isn’t autobiographical, except that the character of Agnes was born of this feeling I had that I was a bad parent. My stepchildren feel like my kids now, but earlier—let’s say that love wasn’t instantaneous. It didn’t spring up.” Instead, Teller says time spent caring for them —putting a chain on her stepson’s bike, just one example—has made love grow. “I tried to mirror that in the story,” she says.
Recently, Teller has realized that if people accept both the good and bad in other people, attitudes will be more rational. We’ll still have “mushy feelings” and reverence for reading, but parents might not feel bad for not being perfect, and beauty that is “more than skin deep” might be seen and celebrated. In other words, we’d all live truthfully (and sometimes happily) ever after.