Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Zel by Donna Jo Napoli

Zel by Donna Jo Napoli

Target Audience: Teen
Summary: High in the mountains, Zel lives with her mother, who insists they have all they need, for they have each other. Zel’s life is peaceful and protected – until a chance encounter changes everything. When she meets a beautiful young prince at the market one day, she is profoundly moved by new emotions. But Zel’s mother sees the future unfolding – and she will do the unspeakable to prevent Zel from leaving her.

Type of Adaptation: Retelling

So, if you don’t know by now how I feel about multiple perspective narration, then hello! I say hello because you must be new. So, hello, and welcome! For those returning, however, let’s say it all together: I have a love/hate relationship with multiple perspectives.

However, Donna Jo Napoli wins me over on the device almost every time, and Zel is no exception. Zel was the first adaptation of Rapunzel I ever read, and among the first of the fairy tale adaptations I encountered in my life. And thank goodness for that, because it I’d read a poorer novel, my obsession with these novels might never have come to pass.

Yeah, just kidding, it still totally would have, but suffice it to say, this novel holds a special place in my heart. Let me tell you why.

This narrative is split between three perspectives – Rapunzel (called Zel), Count Konrad (our prince figure), and Mother, whose portion alone is written in first person. This is a bit of an odd choice, even for multiple perspectives – two of the three are third person omniscient while the last is first person limited? Well, yeah, but you know what? It works. It works really well. Because Mother has powers most people don’t. The deal here is that, long ago, Mother Gothel made a deal with the devil, selling her soul in exchange for a way with plants and a chance to get what nature and God had failed to grant her – a child. So Mother is different than the other characters here, set apart, and this difference in her narration really helps to highlight her. But it is also interesting to me that we’re meant to connect the most with the supposed “villain.” But more on that later.

Anyway, at the novel’s start, Zel knows nothing of her origins. Mother has raised her, and is the only mother Zel has ever known. They live alone on the mountainside, growing everything they need to survive, only venturing in to town twice a year. And while Zel cherishes those days and the chance to go be among people, she also loves her little mountain home and the life she shares with Mother.

But we open on a market day, and Zel is overflowing with excitement. For her thirteenth birthday is in only four days, and she knows that Mother will be buying gifts at market, pens and paper and ink and things they cannot grow or make for themselves.

But something different happens on this trip – Mother leaves Zel on her own for the first time. She needs to go get the things for Zel’s birthday surprises, and so Zel stays on her own by the blacksmith. She even helps the smith calm and shoe a skittish horse. The horse’s name is Meta, and she belongs to Count Konrad, a youth two years older than Zel who is snobbish and entitled but becomes quite taken with Zel because she does not defer to him, is not frightened of him, and offers him peasant bread to eat. He offers her anything she wants in exchange for her help with his horse, but she says she doesn’t want anything. He presses her, and she finally asks for a fertilized goose egg.

See, outside Zel’s alm, there’s this goose. And this goose sits on a nest of rocks because she lost her eggs. So she sits on these rocks day after day after day, and Zel decides to get her a fertilized egg so she’ll finally have a chick to raise. Konrad runs off to fulfill her offer, but then Mother comes back, so Zel makes arrangements for the smith to keep the egg until she can collect it at the end of the day.

When Mother finds out Zel is waiting for a gift, she kinda freaks out a little. Apparently, she has this thing with Zel accepting gifts, mainly that she just flat out isn’t allowed to. The reason, as we discover much later, is that part of Mother’s deal with the devil is that Zel must reach womanhood unconnected to anyone except Mother, so that she, too, can be offered the choice that Mother made – her soul in exchange for a powerful gift. So Mother’s fear is that any gift Zel’s accepts will forge a connection, but as this egg is more for the goose than for Zel, Mother decides to allow it.

Meanwhile, Konrad is out looking for a goose egg and having very little luck because it’s the middle of summer, and he’s kinda pissed. Because this was supposed to be easy – get a gift, discharge his debt, never think of the silly peasant girl so unlike her fellows again. And then she goes and asks for something his money won’t automatically get him. Finally, he manages to secure the egg, only to find that the girl is gone when he goes to deliver it, which is even more infuriating because he doesn’t get to see her reaction to receiving the egg, which he was counting on as payment for his trouble.

I love that this connection is forged so early in the story, and I love that Konrad as we see him here is not the Prince Charming we usually expect from these stories. Instead, he’s kind of a self-entitled jerk. And quickly becoming obsessed with this strange girl from the market place, whose name he does not know.

Zel collects her egg, as well as the small, round-leafed lettuce she loves but Mother won’t grow, and the two of them head home. Zel replaces the largest rock with her fertilized egg, and all seems rosy and happy.

Until the next morning, when Zel discovers that the goose has rolled the egg away and won’t accept it, no matter what Zel does. Zel is distraught, and Mother is, too, because she needs Zel to see that a child can be accepted by someone not its mother. She becomes more distraught when Zel tells her about the youth she met in the market, and then speaks of the far-off eventual marriage that she feels will one day take place.

Mother panics. Fearful that she is losing her child, frightened that Zel’s choice will not be to make the deal Mother made, thereby dooming Mother, Mother acts in rash desperation. She tells Zel that she is in danger, that there are those who would harm her, hurt her, see her killed. Mother tells Zel that she is taking her someplace where she will be safe.

And off they leave on a frightening, harrowing, nerve-wracking journey. And at the end of it, Zel is locked away in a tower without any answers for who is hunting her or where this danger is coming from, and Mother is gone.

What I love about this section is how real and tangible Zel’s terror at this imagined danger is. We really do see just how much she trusts Mother, and Napoli does a fantastic job of putting us in Zel’s shoes – being left alone in that tower, watching her mother be taken away by the plants who carried them there, wondering if she’ll doom herself if she dares to make a sound.

Mother returns every day, with food and paper and ink, but she can stay for only an hour, and then she must leave, to go out into the world and hunt the danger that threatens Zel. Zel is terribly lonely, constantly fearful, and living only a shadow of the life she once knew with no explanation as to why. This part of the novel is heart-wrenching and masterfully done.

And two years pass. We see them pass through Konrad, who has become obsessed with Zel. He thinks of nothing else, won’t consent to marry, questions everyone in the market, trying desperately to find out more about her. If she hadn’t left so suddenly, he wouldn’t be so preoccupied with her, but their brief meeting showed her as a girl unlike any other, and she has taken hold of Konrad’s mind, much to his parents’ dismay.

He passes two years in this almost mindless state, each day wandering out into the mountains, trying to find this girl, driven by memories of her he can’t dispel. And at the end of it, yeah. He’s not entirely sane.

But that’s okay, because we soon learn that Rapunzel isn’t either, and this is where I really fall in love with this adaptation.

Rapunzel has been trapped in a tower for two years. She interacts with another human for one hour a day. That’s it. The rest of the time, she is completely isolated. She has paper and ink, but no other distractions. She lives in constant terror of some unidentified and nameless enemy. Her hair has grown to impossible lengths and Mother now uses it to reach the tower, which, combined with the weight of all that hair, causes Zel nearly constant pain.

I think, under those circumstances, you’d go a bit crazy, too.

And it is made clear to us that Zel is not quite right anymore – her friends are a squirrel, a pigeon, the moon, a sharp stone, and a colony of ants that she led to her tower window by smashing fruit against the outside wall. Her mood shifts on the turn of a dime, and it’s no wonder. She goes about naked except for the hour that Mother comes, and she hurts herself purposefully because feeling anything reassures her that she’s still real and alive. This part of the novel is honestly a little scary, and I’m glad. Because this is the realistic part of Rapunzel’s reality that’s been missing from most other adaptations.

Rapunzel hides this madness from Mother as best she can, but one day, it all comes spilling out, and Mother is terrified at what has become of her daughter, and heart-broken because she knows it is her doing. But she justifies and justifies and justifies.

And then Konrad finds the tower. Konrad, who has been searching for Zel for two years, going out of his mind with the memory of her. He finds the tower, and Zel, who is convinced that he does not truly exist, speaks freely and openly to him. And he watches Mother climb to Zel and decides to do the same.

Like Konrad, Zel has been haunted by the memory of the youth she met so long ago, and out of love and madness and spite and anger, she and Konrad consummate their love, which makes this the first adaptation to defy the Grimm brothers and put that in.

And Mother, more frightened and paranoid than ever, finally reveals to Zel the truth – that there is no enemy, that the danger was abstract and Zel now faces a choice. Zel does not take this news well, and rightly so. She reveals that Konrad has been in the tower almost out of spite, and I love it. It’s not a thoughtless comment; it’s very purposeful. It’s made in anger, in madness, in revenge almost. Furious that Zel has ruined herself for the deal, Mother cuts Zel’s hair and pulls all her power to sends Zel away through her web of plants until she reaches the place where the plants run out.

As soon as she has sent Zel away, Mother regrets the action, for she has no more strength to bring her back. Zel is lost to her forever. In her reckless fury and paranoia, many times over, she has lost what she loved most. And then comes Konrad.

Mother has spent the novel hating this boy, this young man who stole her daughter from her. But here at the end, weak and almost spent, she sees the truth – she lost her daughter all on her own, and this man is more like her than she realized, for he too loves Zel. In his anger, he moves to attack Mother. In automatic defense, she whips Zel’s braids at him and knocks him out of the tower. In one final moment of clarity, Mother uses the very last of her magic to grow brambles around the tower to catch Konrad and save his life.

This, to me, is brilliant – not a hateful act of murder, but an act of mercy, a sacrifice to save his life. The blindness was a small price to pay for that. And here, Mother moves from a limited to an omniscient narrator. Her death releases her, allowing her to follow Zel and Konrad to the end of their story.

Blind and alone, Konrad wanders, drawn on and on by a force he doesn’t understand, but he has nothing to lose, so he follows it. Meanwhile, Zel lives by the coast, raising her daughters and reveling in life. She still has moments of madness, but she works through them. She loves her daughters and never holds them captive, and then one day, into her village, comes Konrad. He hears her as she talks to the girls, and he knows who it is, and when the tears she’s held back for two years fall, they cure his blindness.

I feel like I’ve not done justice to this book with my summary, both because I’m rushing to get this posted before the end of the month and because this is a beautifully complex novel. Trust me; it’s worth the read. Let’s hit the checklist.

Explanation for the parents’ behavior? I didn’t really get into it, but yes. The husband is a coward, the wife is a nag, and the husband promises his unborn child away because Mother threatens his life if he doesn’t. As in, brambles will kill him on the spot unless he says yes.

Exploration of Rapunzel’s childhood? We enter the story when Rapunzel is twelve, and the story we know is told through a flashback more than halfway in. But the little we get gives a really good picture on what the childhood was like. So, half a check.

Explain the unexplained? Magical hair – grown by Mother so she wouldn’t expend her limited energy growing a tree every day. Magical tears – uh . . . I mean, kinda? This could have used a little more, to be honest. So one check of two.

Wrap up the loose ends? Beautifully. And I love that this adaptation didn’t shy away from the gritty stuff. Rapunzel is mad, there is sex, this is a mature adaptation of this story, and I appreciate that because this is a pretty mature fairy tale, and Napoli captured that really well.


  1. This has to be one of the most excellent reviews of Zel I've ever read. I first came across the book a few years ago and pieces of it have come back to haunt me ever since. It was an incredible and cruel book, and gritty describes it perfectly.

  2. Hey cassie,
    Love your writing. I have read this blog before and will again. Thank you so much.

  3. Excellent, comprehensive review. My sister and I are rereading our favorite YA fantasy books for our podcast, and picking Zel back up was especially rewarding. My perspective has really shifted as I've aged and I sympathized with Mother much more, and was more invested in the psychological portraits of the characters. Love your comment on the multiple perspectives and Mother's first person narration, that struck me as well. Check out Dragon Babies on iTunes if you'd like to hear our review! Thanks!