Last week, I was browsing the catalogue on Netgalley and came across a book called Cinderella’s Shoes and was intrigued. I liked the idea that Cinderella was a real person and that her dresses and shoes were also real. I also liked the fact that the book was set in the 1940’s. This is something I’ve wanted for a long time. It was perfect. Except it was the 2nd book in a two book series. Once I was approved for that book, I went searching for the first and found it on sale on Amazon and I started reading it that night.
Kate Allen is a teenage girl in World War II Era New York City. Her dad is over in Italy working as a Monument Man, guarding the art from the Nazi forces. Her brother, Floyd, wants nothing more than to become a pilot, so he could head off for the war too. As for Kate, she’s a fairly normal girl in a world that’s gone crazy. She goes to school (not that we ever see her there) and works at a department store with her mother, who keeps pushing Kate to become a model and an actress. Kate wants neither of those things. She wants to design windows with the men–women were not allowed to work on the windows because no one believed that a woman would have the physical strength to do it. Her life takes a turn for the unexpected when her Great Aunt and Uncle arrive at their door, having escaped from Poland and the Nazi Death Camps. That’s when she finds out that her family has a secret: They’re part of a long line of Keepers of the Wardrobe, women who have been charged with protecting the real Cinderella’s dresses, and Kate is next in line. She’s not quite sure what to make of any of it. Aunt Elsie is slipping into dementia and has just come from a place where no one was safe, so she convinces herself that it was all a product of Elsie’s aging mind. Then, she sees the dress and knows that it is all true.
I have to admit that Cinderella was not one of my favorite fairy tales growing up and I am ambivalent towards the Disney cartoon. I do like the Rodgers and Hammerstein version, especially the one starring Brandi and Whitney Houston that came out back in 1997. If the musical comes to San Francisco any time in the future, I’ll be there with bells on. That said, this is not Cinderella. And that’s a good thing. The last thing we need is yet another re-telling of the original. This was different. It focused not on Kate finding her Price Charming (or Prince Christopher if you’re a R&H fan like me) or looking to escape her everyday life, but rather on a girl coming to grips with her destiny and choosing whether or not she wants it. It is a coming of age story with a bit of magic and a little romance.
One thing that I really liked about this book was the way Ms. Slayton sprinkled bits and pieces of Polish culture into it. While I am part Polish on my maternal grandmother’s side, I don’t know very much about the culture or how every day Polish people lived their lives. That part of my heritage never came down to me, so it was interesting to see these things on the pages of a book that wasn’t detailing Poland’s tradition of changing hands (every time my history teachers pulled out a European map, we searched to see if Poland was on it and most of the time, it wasn’t).
I really liked the fact that Kate’s Babcia (grandmother) left clues as to their family secret on little decorative eggs (called pisanki) for Kate to work out when it came time for her to do so. After consulting Google, I found the above picture. Obviously, these aren’t the ones from the book, but based on what is described in the book about that way Kate’s grandmother made the eggs (usually going for a black background), I thought these would fit nicely.
I also enjoyed the slow burn romance between Kate and Johnny, a boy who eventually ends up in on the secret. I felt it was very realistic for the time and liked the way Ms. Slayton slipped back and forth between a traditional narrative and epistolary form with the inclusion of letters written between Kate and Johnny (and her brother, Floyd) while he was stationed elsewhere during the war. (Neither Floyd nor Johnny saw any action during the war for various reasons that I won’t spoil.) It was interesting how their relationship changes throughout the book and since they were barely friends before he was drafted, I wondered what it would look like once the war was over and he was home. This, too, I felt was done in a very realistic way. Just when Kate had gotten used to communicating via letters, Johnny is physically back in her world and she has trouble talking to him. It was easier when she was writing him letters and this made me think of the scores of actual couples during the war and whether relationships were able to last when the GI’s came home and their sweethearts had to go back to the way things were before the war.
Another thing that I found interesting was the idea that women were expected to go back to the old way of dressing once rationing was over. I did not know that even clothes were rationed, leading to a very real change in the fashion industry of the time. Ms. Slayton described Christian Dior’s “New Look” and the controversy surrounding it extremely well. What I find interesting about the “New Look” is that it was very much the old look, harkening back to a time before the war when women were expected to be covered head to toe and I can understand why women protested against it.
The one thing I didn’t care for was the pacing. Most of the book seemed to go very slowly and I kept wondering how much time had actually gone by from the beginning of the book to the end (based on what I found on Google, it appears to be about 3 years–starting in 1944 and ending in 1947), but unless you had some knowledge of events in that time period, you wouldn’t have any way to know what year it was. It also didn’t help that there wasn’t all that much action until the end of the book–somewhere around the 70% mark. Most of the book was about Kate’s life and it wasn’t until she made a very stupid decision regarding Cinderella’s ball gown that things started to move along at a faster pace. It wasn’t a big deal, but if you’re expecting action from start to finish, you will be disappointed.
I also want to warn any potential readers that this is a Young Adult novel and was probably written with young girls in mind, so there is absolutely no heat–Kate and Johnny don’t even kiss until we’re about 95% through the book. I figured it would be light in this regard and so wasn’t disappointed in how slow the romance actually was.