For this month's YA book club, Ellen Papazian asks Erin Blakemore, Jennie Law, and Jessica Stites what they thought about Ash by Malinda Lo. Add your own answers to Ellen's questions (or come up with your own discussion points) in the comments section!
Ellen: As the back cover proclaims, this is "Cinderella Retold"—so, what's your reaction to Lo's retelling of this ubiquitous fairy tale?
Jennie: I really appreciate the Cinderella story as a universally told fairy tale. There are versions in almost every culture across many centuries. That's probably the only thing that I like about the Cinderella tale in general. And despite this being well-covered ground, I thought Lo really provided a fresh treatment of the story. I loved reading that this Cinderella doesn't run away from the ball at the stroke of midnight so as not to disintegrate her fancy clothes and reveal to the prince her low station—her flight is spurred by her confusing, engulfing sexual feelings towards the prince's huntress. This is a nice alternate telling of a tale that has taught generations of women that they will be rescued by a Prince Charming. Ash ends up rescuing herself and getting the girl. Maybe this will become a new trope.
Jessica: What's not to like about a queer take on Cinderella, probably the most heterosexist fairy tale? Romance in the classic Cinderella is all about class aspiration; the moral is that if you are beautiful and well-groomed enough, you can catch the eye of a rich guy. The prince as a person is totally peripheral. Malinda Lo turns the whole thing on its head by making Cinderella a lesbian, rendering the prince actually, hilariously peripheral. And in Ash's mentorship of Clara, Lo directly challenges the classist and sexist assumption that a young girl's only worth is her potential to marry rich.
Erin: I loved the concept of this book, though I found the execution to be a bit flat. That said, I think it was a great twist on the retelling of a ho-hum story.
Ellen: Aisling, aka Ash, has little interest in chasing princes, as she's grappling with much weightier matters while also falling for the huntress, Kaisa. How do you feel Lo handled this same-sex romance, and sexuality as a whole?
Jennie: As much as I admire the changes in this treatment of Cinderella, I did think that Ash had kind of an easy time of it. That's not a bad thing. There are plenty of books that involve women torturing themselves for loving the perceived wrong person and whom meet a grizzly end. This book provides a lighter treatment and there's certainly room for that.
Erin: Honestly, I was so relieved to see a same-sex romance of any kind that I was willing to forgive a lot! I especially liked that a big deal was not made of the same-sex relationship in the world of the story.
Ellen: Is Ash the heroine we long for in a feminist YA novel? Would you call this feminist YA lit? Why or why not?
Jessica: I liked that Ash provided those winking signposts that you are in a feminist world: the huntress; the acceptance of same-sex attraction; the skirmishes between the philosophers and the hedgewitches. But Ash herself disappointed me a bit as a feminist heroine, and as a main character in general. She's so buffeted by events and by grief that she becomes Mary Sue-ish; I never get a distinct sense of her personality. I could not tell you what it would be like to meet Ash. Is she quiet, disengaged, dreamy? Why exactly does Kaisa like her? (To be fair, I have this problem with a lot of romance heroines, and Ash is fundamentally a romance. The genre lends itself to blah heroines so all readers can relate to them, hence the whole concept of a Mary Sue.)
Erin: Eh. Maybe it was the third-person storytelling, but ultimately I had a hard time connecting with Ash as an independently motivated heroine. That made it hard for me to think of the book as feminist, since in my experience the most gripping feminist narratives show women with varied, strong personalities. However, I'm not sure it disqualifies the book as feminist per se, and the exploration of gender issues definitely added nuance points for me.
Jennie: I would classify it as queer YA lit. It definitely has strong women characters that I admire. But I didn't see this book as filled with enough feminism for me to classify it as a feminist YA novel. It was ultimately about Ash having a sexual awakening. It's a well-written and interesting sexual awakening but it didn't have enough other feminist context for me to full on classify it as such.
Also, there's the extremely problematic side story of Ash giving herself to Sidhean in return for her wish fulfillments. I was relieved, especially in light of some of the other books we've read, that completion of this deal was handled in a generally fuzzy and quick way. However, the agreement that Ash enters into takes the book off the feminist YA list for me.
Ellen: Grief, love, survival, the borderline, fantasy and reality, sexuality, and same-sex romance are just some of the themes present in Ash. Which were most compelling for you as a reader?
Jessica: For me, any version of Cinderella is all about the theme of cruelty, as embodied in evil stepmother. How can a woman be so cruel to her adopted daughter? Is there a non-sexist way to depict that (besides the overdone fairy tale trope that "ugly old women" are jealous of "young beautiful women")? Ash has a fascinating wicked stepmother because she's so believable. She has a reasonable motive; she really feels cheated by Ash's father, and her radical lack of empathy for Ash enables her to be genuinely put out by Ash's supposed failings. I read her as a cautionary tale: when you are self-absorbed and status-and money-obsessed, cruelty follows.
Ellen: Of all the YA novels we've read so far, I found Lo's language filled with the most poetic moments. Were there any particular passages or moments that stood out for you purely for Lo's language choices?
Jennie: I would partially agree. I think that Lanagan's language was awfully poetic as well. For both books, I found it hard to enter into the very specifically worded worlds created by each author. Once I pushed through a little, I felt rewarded. I did enjoy Lo's writing a bit more in the moment, mostly because it wasn't nearly as violent or imbued with as much dense subtext. But those characteristics are what made me love Lanagan's pure craft much more in the long run.
Erin: I liked the passage about Ash learning the ways of her hard housework at the beginning of Chapter VI, but again, I found that the third-person perspective distanced me a lot in a way I did not experience with Tender Morsels, for example.
Jessica: Fairy tale prose is so tricky. You have to use imagery like blood and roses that would be utterly cliché in any other context, and you can easily push it too far. So I tip my hat to Malinda Lo, who in my opinion is up there with master practitioners like Robin McKinley. Take lines like this, "It was as if she could see the leaves unfurling gracefully from their jewel-like buds, the young beetles creeping purposefully forward on the earth." Poetry!
Meet today's panel:
Erin Blakemore learned to drool over Darcy and cry over Little Women in suburban San Diego, California. These days, her inner heroine loves roller derby, running her own business, and hiking in her adopted hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Erin's debut book, The Heroine's Bookshelf, was published by HarperCollins in October.
Jennie Law is a feminist children's librarian in Decatur, GA. She's also a member of the Amelia Bloomer Project (Feminist Books for Young Readers) under the Feminist Task Force of the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association. She spends her free time challenging the patriarchy, hanging out with Butler (her Russian Tortoise), reading, tap dancing, and writing in rhyme.
Ellen Papazian is a writer and teacher. Her work has appeared in the anthologies About Face: Women Write about What They See When They Look in the Mirror and The Long Meanwhile: Stories of Arrival and Departure, and Bitch, including the Page Turner book blog. She leads creative writing workshops for young people and senior citizens. She gifts her babysitters with Weetzie Bat and her niece with Pippi. Learn more about Ellen here.
Jessica Stites is a Ms. editor and a bookworm. Her recent Ms. article "Kick Ass Girls and Feminist Boys" explores race and gender in today's young-adult-fiction boom. When she's not reading or editing—and the blinds are drawn—she enjoys pretending to be Anne of Green Gables pretending to be The Lady of Shalott. Join her feminist-YA conversation here.