Rating: 4 stars
Ella lives in a fairytale world, where there are ogres, giants, fairies and magic. When she is born, poor Ella is given the gift of obedience by a very misguided fairy, who refuses to take it back, even after the appalled pleading of Ella's mother and fairy godmother. Lucinda the Fairy is of the opinion that this is a wonderful gift to bestow on a child, and so Ella grows up having to obey any direct order given to her, and knowing that if someone were to ask her to chop off her own head, she'd have to obey. Luckily, the only ones who actually know the truth about Ella's "gift" are her mother, and the loyal cook. Ella also learns to be creative in the ways in which she obeys any orders. If asked to fetch something, she might throw it at the person, or when asked to hold something, she might march around with the object, forcing the other person to follow her around in order to get to it.
Then Ella's beloved mother gets sick, and dies. Her father, a merchant, is barely ever around. When he is home, he's worried that Ella's manners and accomplishments aren't necessarily all those a young lady should possess, and against Ella's wishes, he sends her off to finishing school, with the odious daughters of a friend. On the way there, Hattie, the eldest of the two girls, discovers that Ella, however reluctant, has to do exactly what she's told, and she exploits this as much as she can. Olive, the younger, and much stupider sister, is not let in on the "game". Because of her "gift", Ella actually becomes quite accomplished at "finishing". She has to obey orders, and most of the teachers there speak in nothing else. She also makes a good friend, and keeps in touch with Mandy (the cook and her fairy godmother) and others she cares about, including Prince Charmant, through the pages of a magical book.
Ella is desperate to have her birthday curse broken, and when she discovers that Lucinda loves weddings and christenings, she runs away from school to find the fairy at a giants' wedding across the kingdom. On the way, she has several adventures, including nearly being eaten by ogres. After the wedding, her father declares that he's completely broke, and either he or Ella will have to marry someone wealthy. As Ella is only fifteen, it ends up being her father, who marries Hattie and Olive's horrid mother. Once the bride discovers that Ella's father is a pauper, and Ella's father goes off to trade as far away from his new family as possible, she forces Ella to be a servant, and Hattie and Olive make sure that Ella get the most menial and horrible chores in the house. The only thing keeping Ella's spirits up, is her correspondence with Prince Char - but because of her terrible "gift", she could never marry a prince, she could put him and the kingdom in far too much danger. She becomes even more determined to get her curse broken.
I first heard about this book years ago, but never read it. I then saw the film, starring Anne Hathaway, never realising that there are only the tiniest of similarities between the story of the book, and the plot of the film. If you are one of the people not terribly impressed with the movie (which let's face it, is not exactly one of Hathaway's finest), and has discounted the book because of it, do yourself a favour and find a copy as soon as possible. It's a delightful book, and such a creative retelling of the Cinderella tale. There are no tiny animals helping with dress making, nor any birds pecking out the stepsister's eyes (seriously, Grimm's original fairy tales can scar a child for life!), but there are glass slippers, and a coach made from a pumpkin, and evil stepsisters, and a very charming prince, who likes Ella just the way she is, and doesn't at all want her all "finished" at school. Ella is spirited, and clever and brave, and a wonderful role model to young girls. Much better than any Disney princess I can think of.