All the Ever Afters
By Danielle Teller
ARC Paperback, 373 pages
2018, William Morrow
I won a copy of this book from LibraryThing in exchange for my honest review.
Before Cinderlla, there was her stepmother, Agnes. Born a peasant and forced at age 10 to work as a servant in the laundry room of her lord’s manner because her family couldn’t afford to keep her at home, Agnes works hard to build a life for herself. After bearing children, she builds a life for herself running an inn and brewery – until the death of lover leaves her penniless and seeking servitude once more. She finds herself back at the lord’s manner, playing nursemaid to little Ella and struggling to carve out a life for herself and her daughters.
I’m a sucker for fairytale retellings, especially when they’re told from the point of view of the “villain” and extra especially (yep) when the view humanizes the characters and makes you see that the story isn’t simply a tale of good and evil.
The majority of the story focuses on the life of Agnes, the young girl who would grow up to find herself stepmother to Cinderella. Ella doesn’t play a large part until maybe the last third of the story, although there are diary entry interludes (which are nicely designed!) that give readers a peek into Agnes’s current life after Ella’s marriage to the prince. By the time Agnes takes on her role of stepmother, I was deeply invested in the well-being of her and her daughters and at first, greatly disliked Ella.
Maybe it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure, but I kind of love reading a tale that depicts the princess as a complete brat and the villain as being wrongly villainized. But All the Ever Afters goes so much farther than that because by the end, I could understand Ella’s perspective too and it’s clear her relationship with Agnes and her daughters wasn’t a completely negative one.
It’s hard not to feel for a character whose thrust into servitude, especially in a position as difficult as a medieval laundry maid. Agnes is naïve, but she’s a fast learner and quickly establishes herself as a character who is willing to work and fight for her place in the world. Of course I loved her! Without giving much away, she’s constantly put through new hardships and while they affect her, she never lets them stop her from striving for more. I think this is crucial in establishing her humanity, so that when Ella comes on the scene, you can understand why Agnes treats her the way she does.
Ella is a strange child – quiet and reserved from a very young age. Her mother dies when she’s only a toddler and this causes Ella to retreat even further into herself, her father being the only one she really opens up to. It’s understandable why Ella and Agnes get off to a rough start and I felt sympathy for both characters, though more so for Agnes if I’m honest.
I appreciate the diary entries too, because they give a little peek into what happens after Ella marries the prince. It also brings a lot of closure to the main storyline. Again, I won’t say much about the plot, but I was happy to find this was, on the whole, a more light-hearted retelling. I love my darkness, but after everything Agnes went through, I’m glad this story doesn’t take the “and Cinderella’s evil stepmother and stepsisters all got their eyes pecked out and lived as beggars forever” route.
This is very much a character-driven retelling set in what feels like a realistic depiction of medieval life. If you’re someone who isn’t a big fan of fantasy, I think this could be the retelling for you. But, if you’re looking for the fairy godmother and all the trappings, then you might want to look elsewhere.
I’ll leave you with a quote (even though it’s an ARC and I technically shouldn’t quote it, but hopefully this one line remained unchanged in the final edition) because I love quotes about the power of stories:
“The stories we tell ourselves have great power.”
Pick this up if you:
+ Love fairytale retellings from the villain’s POV
+ Enjoy medieval/historical fiction with a focus on the characters
+ Are looking for some low-key feels