Friday, May 27, 2011

REVIEW: Zel by Donna Jo Napoli

Based on the fairy tale Rapunzel, the story is told in alternating chapters from the point of view of Zel, her mother, and the nobleman who pursues her, and delves into the psychological motivations of each of the characters.

Zel by Donna Jo Napoli is not at all what I'd expected. First, from that cover, I believed the book to be aimed at a much younger audience. It isn't. Zel is most definitely young adult as there are themes and topics covered in this book which are a little disturbing. Second, I thought that because this is quite the slim book, I'd zip right through it. That didn't happen either. The atmosphere of the book and some of the heavy emotions that are evoked made Zel a pretty dense read in parts. It isn't by any means light reading. And for the most part, I liked it, though it is a little bleak.

Zel, is of course, a retelling of the fairy tale Rapunzel where a young girl is locked away in a tower with no access but a window. Her mother visits her by day calling for Rapunzel to let down her hair. A prince falls in love with her and together they hatch a plan for escape.

The first part of the story, in which Zel is still quite innocent and believes her mother to be a good was my favourite. Zel and her mother visit a distant town to gather some supplies and there meets a prince. Zel's mother feels threatened by the prince and plans to hide Zel away in order to keep Zel safe and tied to her.

Since reading Zel, I can no longer think of the story of Rapunzel as anything but cruel and barbaric. Donna Jo Napoli's version of the story is told from each of the main character's viewpoints and really gets into their heads. The prince, who is desperate to locate the mysterious girl he met in the market at any costs. Zel's mother, who is unable to let go of her daughter so that she may lead her own life separate to her. You can really see in Zel's mother's head the twistedness and justifications for her actions. And then there's Zel. And with her perspective the reader can see quite clearly the effect that the isolation and confusion Zel must have felt being locked away during puberty without any company and her declining mental state.

It's quite a sad, little story. And while there is a happy ending of sorts, there is so much that is broken within Zel that the ending didn't quite live up to my expectations. Which might have been the point, I'm not sure? I think I'm still making up my mind about this book!


  1. Great review, this sounds like an interesting book and one that is a challenge to review.

  2. This sounds really interesting, I definitely want to read it! I can't think of any other retellings of Rapunzel, though I did write (a not particularly sophisticated) one once.

  3. I read a book by Donna Jo Napoli when I was twelve or so, and I thought it was dead shocking. It wasn't at all the sweet mermaid story I had been expecting, and I felt like it was so naughty (full of mermaid sex) I had better hide it from my parents. But once I stopped feeling that way, I didn't love the book so much, and I don't know if I ever read anything else by the same author.

  4. Jenni - It was a very difficult review to write, I just felt so mixed up when reading the book.

    Julianne - Did you really? :) How fun!

    Jenny - Mermaid sex? Geez, that sounds ...


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