First off, what a gorgeous book. McSweeney's is a publisher who REALLY CARES about presentation. It looks like a sturdy collection of children's fairytales, complete with a hard fabric cover and a recessed picture. It's not a book you want to prop up a sofa with, that's for sure.
Secondly, fairytales are a shoe-in for Coover. Disregarding his books that are overt fairytales to begin with ("Briar Rose," "Pinnochio in Venice"), most of his characters are already subverted archetypes who repeat stereotypical behaviours from beginning to end. "Ghost Town" had its doomed schoolmarm, its cowboy, and even its sentient train. "The Babysitter," his best-known story, features compressed variations on all the archetypal babysitters, all their boyfriends, all the parents, and all their children. Oh yeah, and a suffocating girdle full of butter.
In "Stepmother," these elements aren't disguised...they're the entire point. The small cast of characters are distilled from Brother's Grimm: The Old Soldier, The Reaper, The Stepmother, The Ogress (Stepmother's name for the "holy female" character who tells victims to accept their suffering as grace), the king and his three princes.
What's more, the characters are doomed to repeat their small set of character traits. The Old Soldier, always discharged with nothing but a crust of bread, has an arsenal of magic items that he uses frivolously. The Stepmother must help the unfortunate and punish the fortunate -- which is difficult, since by helping the unfortunates she turns them into people she must subsequently punish. There are always three princes: the older two must betray the youngest, who -- of course -- is a simpleton.
In typical Coover fashion, the protagonist -- Stepmother -- refuses to accept the constraints of her world and is tantilized by ways to break the pattern...ways that end up being part of the pattern itself. If we can take one thing from Robert Coover's writing, I think it's the idea that escaping the system is simply another part of the system, and the only people who are truly at peace are those who just relax and "let it happen." His characters are never more at pain than when they discover that yet another door leads back to the same old courtyard.
I've already read far too many fairytale deconstructions, but Coover approaches his characters so naturally -- and with such humour in every piece of predestined, cliche'd dialogue -- that I loved "Stepmother" from beginning to end. It's particularly fun when it's nasty, revealing the undercurrents that Brother's Grimm never spelled out explicitly:
She had a stepsister who was a snotty little saint who got up our noses at every opportunity with her sanctimonious wheedling and rehearsed meekness and dead mother worship, suckered by the Ogress as she was, and so as not to strangle the simpering twit in a fit of impatient rage or mark up her irritatingly pretty little face, I would send her on impossible errands just to get her out from underfoot. So one day I sent her to pick strawberries in the snow and she came back, not only wth strawberries but also coughing up gold pieces whenever she spoke. At home of course the smug little vixen clammed up, wouldn't burp a farthing, just gazed upon us all with a fat-faced beatific smile.