Series: The Palace Chronicles #1
Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers on August 28th, 1999
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy, Fairy Tale Retelling
The Cinderella legend gets a realistic twist in this enchantingly believable adventure from New York Times bestselling author Margaret Peterson Haddix that Booklist calls "provocative and entertaining."
Ella dreams of going to the royal ball and marrying Prince Charming, just like every commoner in the kingdom of Fridesia. But after she is chosen to marry the prince (no magic involved) life with the royal family is not the happily ever after that Ella imagined. Pitiless and cold, the royals try to mold her into their vision of a princess. Ella's life becomes a meaningless schedule of protocol, which she fears she will never grasp. And Prince Charming's beautiful face hides a vacant soul.
Even as her life turns to misery, stories persist that Ella's fairy godmother sent her to the ball: How else could the poor girl wear a beautiful gown, arrive in a coach, and dance in those glass slippers? But Ella got herself into the castle on her own--and that's the only way she's going to get out.
Having read and very much enjoyed Haddix’s Shadow Children series when I was younger, when Just Ella was selected as our next book club pick, I was all for it! I mean, my history with the author aside, I very much enjoy fairy tale retellings anyway and the newly redesigned cover took my breath away. But, in the end, I am a bit disappointed in this book.
Just Ella has all the ingredients to be a refreshing, feminist take on Cinderella, but very little heart. There’s no one specific complaint I have about this book, but all throughout it I was never really fully engaged. What’s weird about it is that I knew I should objectively be cheering it on for all the good it does. In this take on Cinderella, the instalove / love at first sight connection between Ella and the prince is dissected and criticized, and though Ella had an enslaved, burdensome life before moving to the castle, her new position poses so many more restrictions on her that she longs for true freedom. She takes her fate into her own hands and decides she’d rather not live as someone’s puppet-like arm candy.
In theory, that premise should have me jumping out of my seat, happy, cheering, “FUCK THE PATRIARCHY”, but the execution lacked a spark. First of all, I had trouble connecting to Ella as a character. Now, I realize that most of that is my own fault. I’d recently seen the 2015 movie version of Cinderella, and that image of Ella’s character stuck in my mind so fiercely that this book version of Ella was hard to accept. She did not have the kindness and grace that I had come to admire about the movie version. Her voice sounded so much more juvenile, with so little conviction. At times I wanted to cheer her on, but she made it really hard. View Spoiler »(Like, after escaping the castle and having the freedom to do whatever she wants, she can’t think of anything and just decides to work for her love interest’s goals instead. She literally admits this. Wow, way to abandon your feminism two seconds after winning your freedom.) « Hide Spoiler
The setting at the castle was also a hard pill to swallow. Haddix creates this uppercrust society where everything’s about image. (The prince literally is told to marry the most beautiful girl in the kingdom, whomever it may be, so that they will have beautiful offspring.) The people are obsessed with decorum and manners. Ella is not allowed to light her own fire or do her own laundry. She HAS to let servants do everything for her. And she’s not allowed to really talk to them or go anywhere that’s not on her schedule. Serious classism and patriarchy shizzle going on. I get that that’s supposed to make me angry, and I guess it did. But I think it was also supposed to be a witty kind of satire, but it didn’t really make me laugh or think critically about society. It gave me basically no feelings other than that everyone was being seriously ridiculous and annoying. So, mission failed.
The last thing that could have possibly made this book into one that I actually enjoyed would be a promising romance or a shippy ship. But, no, I had no feelings about the romance. Pretty much from the start, it’s clear that the prince is not so charming (ha) as everyone thinks – and certainly he gets worse as the story goes along. Yes, Ella does get another love interest (kind of) along the way, in one of the only people at the castle to show her kindness. But I didn’t swoon for them. At all. I appreciated him listening to her and the way that she could be more like herself around him, but I thought they just as well could have stayed just friends. And I tried to kind of ignore it and pay more attention to the feminist element of the story (i.e. Ella don’t need no man to complete her or provide for her) but then the ending kind of ruined that. So, that was a swing and a miss too.