HELEN OYEYEMI: Not a wicked stepmother.
  • HELEN OYEYEMI: Not a wicked stepmother.

Of all the female archetypes in need of feminist reclamation, the wicked stepmother probably has the fewest defenders. And for good reason! An adult who spends a whole lot of her life being jealous of a child doesn't exactly engender sympathy in readers. In her new novel, Boy, Snow, Bird (Riverhead Books, $27.95), Helen Oyeyemi contributes a doozy of an unsympathetic wicked stepmother to the tradition. Here's Boy Novak, a young woman with a troubled past, first laying eyes on Snow, the young daughter of the wealthy man Boy hopes to make her husband:

I watched the women watching Snow. Their reverence was over the top. Sure, she was an extraordinary-looking kid. A medieval swan maiden, only with the darkest hair and the pinkest lips, every shade at its utmost. She was like a girl in a Technicolor tapestry, sure, sure, but... they'd had a while to get used to her, and acting like that every time they laid eyes on her seemed to me like the fastest way to build an insufferable brat.

It could be the start of a memorable and delicious feud, except one of the participants, remember, is a 6-year-old girl. (As Boy judges Snow with the harshness adults usually reserve for rivals, Snow peppers her stepmother-to-be with questions: "Do you like cookies? Do you like cold water? Do you like elephants? How do you spell 'genius'? Can you jump rope? How are ya today? What does 'genius' mean?") Soon enough, Boy has insinuated her way into the family, and she gives birth to a daughter of her own, named Bird. This family isn't big enough for the four of them.

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