Ever since Catherine’s father’s death, her stepmother, Mathilde, has treated Catherine like a servant. With four younger siblings, maintaining order is always a challenge. Adding to the burdens of being the eldest, Mathilde has arranged a marriage for Catherine. It’s a union that Catherine knows will benefit the loomhouse her father built and possibly even lead to supplying the royal family itself with textiles. But Catherine is desperate to avoid the marriage. It’s bad enough her intended suitor is several decades older than Catherine herself, but the man is cruel to one and all.
With such a joyless future looming, Catherine is jubilant at the prospect of attending a royal ball. While she knows there is no hope of finding a woman for herself to love, she can at least enjoy the pageantry. There is so much pageantry, in fact, that Catherine fails to notice that her very keen dance partner is actually Prince Heinrich. Anxious to avoid giving him the wrong idea and to avoid being caught by Mathilde, Catherine escapes back to her home. Prince Heinrich manages soon to find Catherine despite her disappearing act. Before long, Catherine realizes there is more to Heinrich than meets the eye and that a marriage with him just might let Catherine help herself and her family.
Loose in the Heel, Tight in the Toe is a reimagining of Cinderella and originally appeared in a collection of stories called Once Upon a Rainbow, which was published in 2018. Catherine fills the role of a very good-hearted Cinderella and Mathilde that of the wicked-but-not-quite-cruel stepmother. The time period is vaguely historical (for example, chamber pots are used). There are clear hierarchical social structures with the king at the top; women can be wealthy, but are also still subject to being used as means to secure the family’s financial situation. That said, I feel like the social climate feels comparatively progressive, if for no other reason than Catherine seems to identify as a lesbian and Heinrich as an asexual, but neither one seems to feel any stress about their respective orientations. It was a bit of a juxtaposition to read how nonchalantly Catherine talks about her romantic desires, yet she also seems to indicate that, after she gets married to Heinrich, any potential lover she might find would be sort of kept a secret.
I thought the story was a bit meandering. Specifically, I wasn’t really sure what the main conflict was. Mathilde factored into several of the threads: her intense dislike of Catherine, her attempt to marry Catherine or one of her own daughters to a wealthy wool merchant, her dishonest record keeping. I did appreciate that all of these threads get picked up and addressed after Catherine gets betrothed to Heinrich. But the betrothal also introduces an element of “fish out of water” as Catherine learns how to navigate royal life. And then there’s the whole aspect of Catherine and Heinrich learning to like each other, even though no romance develops. There is also a miniscule element of magic. The idea of fairy godmothers does feel intrinsic to any retelling of Cinderella, but I just wasn’t really sold on it in this story. The inclusion of a fairy godmother figure did facilitate Catherine going to the ball, but there didn’t seem to be any more purpose for the character or any magic in the story at large.
Overall, I did like how Mathilde and her actions served as a bridge between Catherine’s two worlds. I also thought it was great to have some ace representation; it’s just too bad it felt like the story was too short to show much depth in the Catherine/Heinrich dynamic. Readers who love Cinderella retellings or strong female leads will probably enjoy this. Fans of historical or period dramas might not get as much out of this beyond the idea of guilds and fancy costumes, but it was interesting to read about characters whose mindsets feel very contemporary and to watch them navigate a world that is still very much in the past.