Title: Cinder & Ella
Author: Kelly Oram
Genre: Realistic Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, YA
Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ || 1 star
warnings for: in-universe ableism, death, suicide ideations/attempts
Can someone tell me why this has such a high rating on Goodreads? I truly would like to know, because this book was fucking awful. Like I’m sorry, did we travel back in time to 2003? Because that was the last year this book would have been acceptable to me, and even there would have been a question mark punctuating my enjoyment. And several exclamation points following. (FTR, I would have been seven or eight, and I still might have looked down my nose at this book.) It’s just sexist hogwash, is what it is.
Ellamara Rodriguez is named after a character in her mother’s favourite book. You could say she was destined to be a bookworm. Indeed, she was destined to love that book, The Druid Prince, and her namesake––Ellamara, a priestess who gives up her love for Prince Cinder. Sharing that love is Brian Oliver, Hollywood’s resident bad boy, who goes by the username Cinder. Three years ago, he approached Ella through her blog and since then, they’ve become best friends. Or perhaps something more.
Then, a car accident, and Ella’s life is turned upside-down. She loses her mother, suffers second and third degree burns over most of her body, has to have reconstructive surgery and re-learn how to walk. After eight months in the hospital, she is then forced to move across the country to LA to live with the father who walked out on her and the family she was abandoned for.
I was excited to read this because it had such a high rating on Goodreads and because it’s the type of story I most like: Ella stands at the intersections of so many identities, but the story itself is ultimately a romance. Specifically, it’s a story as classic, as simple, and as typical as a Cinderella romance. And certainly, it is such a simple, typical story, hitting so many familiar beats. What it isn’t, though, is a good story.
The writing itself is mediocre. Heavy in cheese, light in subtlety, totally lacking in quality. It’s the Kraft of cheeses, and while it never can be said that I don’t enjoy cheese (even badly-written cheese), I’m still a brie-on-crackers kind of girl. The prose was on felt on par with the Clique books we read in middle school, except that our protagonist is 19 and not 13. The romance is heavy-handed at best, forced at worse, the character interactions cringe-inducing (and my did I cringe). Most of the obstacles standing between Brian and Ella were unnecessary, and the love interest was, frankly, an awful person.
Not “oh he’s so bad I want to reform him” awful, or even “poor broody misunderstood baby, I want to cherish him and give him love” awful, but just plain Trash with a capital T, the kind of asshole who makes statements like
I’d never been in a girl’s “friend” zone before—the thought of a girl not wanting me that way was absurd—but I was worried that’s where I fell on Ella’s radar. She had no problem telling me she cared about me, and she teased me all the time, but she never flirted with me, even when I would flirt first.
He frequently refers to girls as bitches and calls his best friend “woman” (i.e. “Don’t do this to me, woman!“––this is the sort of thing I might have thought was cute in elementary school). He is condescending to his coworkers, is arrogant and controlling, and disparages girls for their sexuality even though he’s the one sleeping around.
This is the type of book that shames girls who care about their appearances, but makes sure to remind us and to emphasise that no, Ella’s face didn’t get burned, ergo she’s still in possession of her value as a woman. Ergo we would not have to consider what we would do, how far our empathy might extend, had Ella’s face been scarred, had required grafts. The direction of the novel indicates very clearly that You Are Still Beautiful, not that the idea of beauty itself is ultimately an empty and inadequate way of determining worth.
Of course, this doesn’t have to be regressive. Because there are many girls––disabled girls being among them––who are consistently told that we are not pretty, that we are not beautiful, so that an affirmation of beauty is revolutionary, is a celebration of ourselves. And really, it’s easy enough to say that beauty doesn’t matter when the world tells you differently. Yet I doubt that Oram thought too deeply into the matter, because there’s also the small matter of Ella being repeatedly exotified because she’s half-Chilean, and her beauty is often ascribed to this exotification. (Politics of beauty? Jeez, what politics?)
And as much as the author tries to convince us that this––and Brian––is cute, it’s actually pretty horrid. The novel is so invested in making Ella the Perfect Girl for Brian and Brian the Perfect Boy for Ella it fails to consider whether or not they actually have chemistry, whether their interactions are actually believable, whether readers will actually root for them to be together. (Admittedly, I seem to be in the minority on this last one.)
Then, there’s the little matter of this:
Yes, you did read that correctly. That is a mental health professional telling a girl that your self-esteem ought to stem from an uncertain relationship with a boy. It’s not a question of if I dislike the book so much as it is a question of degree.
It’s not monolithically bad, though––hence the fact that I gave it a single, solitary star instead of banning it to my Book Graveyard. There is of course the fact that Oram wrote a romance novel about a Chilean American girl who is disabled, but apart from the premise, Ella’s relationship with her father and her father’s family actually felt incredibly nuanced, especially considering the rest of the novel. Her stepmother is condescending (if well-meaning, but her offensive remarks are not swept under the blanket), her stepsisters cruel (if understandably so, but they are not let off the hook), while her father tries to provide her with every comfort at the expense of her happiness.
Ella’s disabilities are also well-represented, but I am speaking as an able-bodied person, so this is of course a tentative statement. There are a lot of self-esteem issues and angst within the novel about Ella’s limp, her skin grafts, etc, but given that her accident happened only the year before, this didn’t seem to get stuck in the rut that novels like Me Before You seem to, particularly since the novel’s arc focuses on Ella’s journey to a better, healthier living space and headspace. Her nurses, physical therapists, and psychiatrist are a consistent and important presence in her life, and her decision to go to a rehab centre is not treated with the derision often afforded to those facilities in entertainment news; it’s simply a decision that was made with her mental health in mind. It is also made clear that her support team, including her friends and newfound family (such as it is) will remain in her life going forward.
Would this have made me read it, though? I don’t think so. The entire novel felt antagonistic towards women all while being self-satisfied with providing us with a protagonist who is a “pig-headed, naïve feminist romanticist.” (Do words, I wonder, have meanings?) The writing isn’t cute, the characters we’re meant to like are, quite frankly, uninspiring, and the interactions between those characters are nausea-inducing. On the basis of Brian Oliver alone I wouldn’t recommend this novel, but when that is sandwiched between cheese so thick it might kill the lactose intolerant and give everyone else a stomachache, I’d say pass on this one.
A roughly curated list of my Kindle notes for perusal at your own leisure: