Disclaimer 1: This is a book review for novelists. There are many other reviews about Cinders, this one is for those who like to write books.
Disclaimer 2: I placed 3rd in one of Michelle’s short story contests in a blind judging. Please don’t think I’m doing a bit of quid pro quo, because I can assure you I am a vicious reader.
I always thought Cinderella was a bit of a whore.
You can’t blame Disney’s Cinderella for being a whore. The girl’s stepmother and sisters abused her, making her life a living misery. Going back to the classic tale, we can all put ourselves in her shoes (get it—put ourselves in her shoes? Oh, I am so clever!), and who can resist the charm of the Prince searching for the girl who enticed him and then taking her away to live happily ever after?
The classical definition of a whore is somebody who does things for selfish reasons. Add a bit of the magically seduced prince, and there you have it.
Thus, it was with trepidation that I started reading Cinders, attracted to the book because I love novellas and I thought the cover was smashing. It was supposed to be a coming-of-age-story with a bunch of girly girl mixed with whimsy. I was even expecting talking animals.
Goodness was I mistaken.
Cinders by Michelle Davidson Argyle is a literary wonder with perfect, sparse prose obscuring a multi-layered depth that is haunting as it is breathless. When I finished the book, I just sat there in my chair outside staring at the trees in the sun. Cinders captivated, disturbed, infatuated, crushed, bewildered and beguiled me.
It’s difficult to know where to begin on an in-depth review with something so overwhelming complex born of simplicity, but there is the obvious. The prose.
Argyle’s delicious, sensual, twilight and shadow prose.
Here is one example:
“Not yet. Let me sing you a song.” He sat with her near a bush with white flowers, the same ones in her hair, and as he sang, the smell of clover grew stronger. He helped her lie down. Petals fell from his hair when his lips brushed hers. She closed her eyes and saw Isaac bruising Rose’s horse, his arm moving up and down, the cat licking her paws.
See, I’m a red-blooded American Male. I like my steak waved in a warm room, apple pie and watch movies where stuff blows up in space. A productive evening for me is when I’ve managed to clean all the guns without running out of CLP.
Yet, that excerpt right there made my heart go pitter-pat. I read that and I was breathless, the feeling you get when you look at a girl for the first time and realize you’re crushing hard.
For the writer, Cinders is a decent into the visceral, as that example shows. It’s not a la la la literary going to describe a flower in twelve metaphors visceral, but a dark, sensual, haunting flowing river of words that sits at the bottom of your gut like a fiery Cognac. Argyle’s prose is sparse, her mastery with such few words speaks to a deep, creative talent, and she uses her creativity to breathe life into the lifeless.
In Disney’s adaptation, Cinderella is a story about a girl becoming a woman in order to escape her awful life while snagging the man of her dreams in the process through magic and rodent Tom Foolery.
“Cute talking animals” is code for “this is a child’s story for entertainment” and as such that’s what Cinderella, the character, was.
Argyle’s characterization is so fascinating and her Cinderella is a compelling, complex figure different from the original literary tale before it. It is impressive how Argyle turns a vapid fairytale shell into a young woman, but Cinderella here is a wonderful, flawed person yearning to make her own choices.
And make them she does. I was rooting for Cinderella through the entire book because her yearning selfishness, even though justified, was tragic to behold. Even at her worst mistakes, at least she made them. Choice. Has there ever been such a literary theme worthy of published words?
But I digress.
How I loved that seductive, lethal yet empathetic Cinderella. What, you say? Cinderella? Lethal? Seductive?
Oh, yes. That and more. Cinderella makes mistakes, and people die. Cinders, my friends, is a book with an impressive body count, like any good fairytale. Despite the darkness that Argyle serves up as pebbles falling into a still lake, the book isn’t about death, but about life: living, learning, and loving.
She also loves, oh how Cinderella loves. Her love is consuming and fearful; she loves with her mind and her body, and her passions and desires elevate her from her magical prison of her own making while driving her to the cliff of despair. Argyle pulls this off with mastery for the complex wrapped around the simple.
Cinders is a love story, but it’s also a coming-of-age-story, and the truly amazing part of this novella is the themes and plot intertwines to the point where it’s difficult to tell the difference between the two. It’s also a raw story with under-the-radar world building, a world that comes alive in the fewest words possible. The setting is so vivid, it mesmerizes the reader who turns page after page and all too soon, the end of the book comes like a punch in the gut.
The ending is a study in perfection, a true “didn’t see it coming, but should have,” moment of pure bittersweet. That’s the summation for the writer: Cinders is a study in perfection. The perfect cover. The perfect tagline. Even the bookmark is perfect. The perfect story. Perfect prose. The perfect novella. It’s magical. You could stick this novella in a time capsule, move it forward two hundred years, and for the lucky reader who dug it up, she would say “oh!” and yearn for more.
Argyle banished Disney’s whore from my mind. It was as if she never existed, and in her place is a woman of empathy and beauty, a mixture of danger tempered with love.