Robert Coover Stepmother Reviewed by Rick Kleffel

Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive


Robert Coover

Illustrated by Michael Kupperman

McSweeney's Books

US First Edition Hardcover

ISBN 1-932-41609-9

Publication Date: 07-11-2004

90 Pages; $14

Date Reviewed: 08-15-04

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004



Fantasy, General Fiction, Horror


Murder, sex, and violent death are perfect ingredients for the kind of children's literature that in reality targets an adult audience. 'Stepmother' throws in a few kinks beyond these, then tells the resulting story in a voice so straightforwardly seductive that we can't help but be charmed. Robert Coover's lighthearted fable yanks in just about every character you've ever seen in anything that fell under the label of "fairy tale" and crams them in a magical forest with a mind of its own. The miracles you experience aren't those of princes transformed into frogs or fair maidens freed from towers, though you'll certainly enjoy reading Coover's spin on these hoary clichés. All the magic happens in the language. The sentences leap playfully from page to page. Characters are created and destroyed before your inner, reading eyes. And bubbling underneath, the raging crosscurrents of Story and Idea carry the reader away, away from the clichés, away from cares of mundane fiction. Coover's 'Stepmother' is a wicked hoot that rides away on a broom from any expectations you might care to bring with you.

Stepmother is a witch in an enchanted forest, trying to free her stepdaughter from a royal prison. The effort is likely to be for naught, but Stepmother is a caring parent. Caring but pragmatic; she knows her children tend to end up, "drowned, hung, stoned, beheaded, burned at the stake, impaled, torn apart, shot, put to the sword, boiled in oil, dragged down the street in barrels studded on the inside with nails or nailed into barrels with holes drilled in them and rolled into the river." She manages to free her child, but finds herself on the run in the forest, fleeing the Reaper, seeking refuge from the Old Soldier, avoiding the Holy Mother (who she calls the Ogress), flying high and laying low. The Story moves towards an Ending, and the reader is well advised not to expect an excess of happiness.

'Stepmother' is a novella that is one long and impressive balancing act, teetering now towards arch-satire, tottering next towards humorous whimsy. Running underneath is a rock-solid discussion of Story, Narrative and the meta-fictional construct. It's a real recipe for disaster, and that makes Coover's complete success all the more impressive. He has only one tool to hold all this together -- language. Fortunately, it's a tool he uses incredibly well. 'Stepmother' showcases some of the finest humorous writing you're likely to find. Coover's sentences are clear, punchy and light as a feather. 'Stepmother' is the kind of book that you'll want to read aloud.

Complimenting the narrative are Kupperman's illustrations, creepy concoctions that remind one of both Roy Lichtenstein and woodcuts. They're a disturbing and effective counterpart to Coover's consistently smooth delivery. They have the look of innocent illustrations for children's literature but the content is often upsettingly adult. They're beautifully printed.

This book itself is a gorgeous gift from McSweeney's Press. Issued sans DJ, the paper is thick, the type is large, but not too large and the pictures, as noted before, are expensively done heavy tones of black, brown and shades in-between. This is an expensively bound book that's made to keep, for those who enjoy the physicality of books, the holding and page turning, again and again.

Of course, keeping wouldn't be worth a whole lot if the book were not as perfectly written as it is presented, but that's not a problem. Coover and McSweeney's have crafted a lovely little book that fun to read, full of deep thought that is sparklingly clear (and easily set aside if you Just Want To Have Fun). You enter this enchanted forest at the reading too fast. Do yourself a favor. Take your time, but realize that this is the kind of written landscape that can be enjoyably explored as you read -- and re-read Coover's creation.