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Zel by Donna Jo Napoli
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Zel (original 1996; edition 1996)

by Donna Jo Napoli

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6182415,758 (3.69)37
Member:wisewoman
Title:Zel
Authors:Donna Jo Napoli
Info:Dutton Juvenile (1996), Hardcover, 240 pages
Collections:My Library, Read in 2008
Rating:****
Tags:Children's/YA Fiction, Fantasy

Work details

Zel by Donna Jo Napoli (1996)

  1. 00
    Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth (flying_monkeys)
    flying_monkeys: For adults, told through parallel narratives, switching back and forth between history and folklore, this retelling is based on the true story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the writer behind the most popular version of Rapunzel.
  2. 00
    Golden: A Retelling of "Rapunzel" by Cameron Dokey (Hollerama)
    Hollerama: Both works are adaptations of Rapunzel.
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» See also 37 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
I picked this up because it was on the "recommended" list at the back of one of Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow's anthologies - and I'm very glad I did!
It's a retelling of the story of Rapunzel, set in the 1500's in Switzerland. While Napoli does not take out the more fantastic/magical elements of the story, she very much emphasizes the psychological elements of the story: the witch who demands a baby girl in return for the theft of her lettuce is not simply evil, but clings to her "adopted" daughter, Rapunzel, with a fierce and possessive "love," which over the years grows more and more obsessively twisted, till it leads to her imprisoning her in an isolated tower, with terrible consequences for Zel's sanity... The dynamic, as it is portrayed, is far too close to the reality of how many parents cling to their children (finding it hard to let them grow up, become independent, and find love on their own) to be comfortable reading. Although the book was marketed toward young teens, I found it to be one of the most disturbing (but also most romantic!) works I've read in quite a while.
Highly recommended for fans of Patricia McKillip.
( )
  AltheaAnn | Feb 9, 2016 |
When I was a teenager, ages 14 through 17, I lived a half-mile from a library branch. Nearly every weekend and once or twice a week during summers, I rode my bike down and grabbed as many books as would fit in my basket. There was a set of bookcases adjoining the adult genre fiction that was marked "YA", and during those three years, I started at the A's on one end and worked my way to Jane Yolen at the other end - I was especially interested in historical fiction and fairy tale retellings, and I must have read every single one at least twice even as I worked my way through all the books available there.

Donna Jo Napoli was an interesting author - she wrote a few fairy tales that were interesting, but didn't quite appeal in the way some other authors' did, but I kept finding myself picking her books off the shelf anyway. I always thought of her as a favorite, then wondered why I thought that when I finished the books. I'm not sure I can pinpoint why I disliked them as a teenager, but a decade and a half on, I found myself doing the same thing. At a library book sale, I stuck Zel into my $10 sack, and planned to keep it for my nostalgic rereading phases. It took me a while to get around to it, but eventually I did, and I think I can say why this book seems like it would be right amongst my favorites, yet isn't.

The story of Zel is a fairly faithful retelling of the Grimms' "Rapunzel" tale. There's a witch who bargains with a neighbor - leafy rapunzel greens for the pregnant wife, and the baby will be the witch's. When the baby grows up, she's stuck in a tower all alone, until a young prince happens to ride by and discovers the secret of how the witch goes up. He does the same, impregnates the young woman, and when the witch finds out, he's thrown into thorns and blinded, while meanwhile the young woman gives birth to twins, and when he finds her, her tears cure his blindness.

Where Napoli makes this story unique is in placing it in Calvinist Switzerland in the mid-1500s and by putting half the book in the witch's point of view. The setting is not particularly relevant, except that it adds flavor to the story and gives the witch and the prince a little context behind their choices. The witch's point of view, however, is what makes this story. Zel and the prince aren't particularly interesting (Zel is a sweet-natured peasant girl who loves her mother and loves animals; the prince is privileged and obsessed with the blonde girl who calmed his horse), and as children with limited knowledge, they mostly serve to illustrate the consequences of the witch's actions. The witch has never wanted anything more than to be Mother, and her life revolves around playing that role towards Zel and raising Zel - just the two of them, alone. Through her POV, we explore selfish love and sacrifice, and outright jealousy over Zel belonging to anyone else once she grows up.

Mother has no name except that, and she is a witch because she bargained with the devil for supernatural powers in order to become a mother - which she did through the usual Rapunzel way. This bargaining plays into her reasons for locking Zel into a tower, but it was never satisfactory for me. It was somehow secondary to other plot elements and never quite explained, rather like Napoli knew she had to hit certain marks in the Rapunzel tale and used the demons as the excuse. It's much more interesting to see the psychological changes in Mother as she realizes Zel is growing up and may leave her one day, and likewise Zel's own growth into a young woman. Unfortunately, Zel's growing up is also a bit perfunctory and odd, and the insanity induced by solitary confinement in the tower doesn't help it make any more sense when she's suddenly attracted to the prince and interested in sex, despite never having had prolonged contact with another other than her Mother before.

Which, speaking of: there is a sex scene in the tower towards the end of the book, to match up with the one in the Grimms' tale, and it was one of the most awkward and uncomfortable and also disturbing scenes I have read in a YA book. It isn't explicit, but at this point, Zel is only 14 years old and has been in a tower since she was 12 - and she only met the prince once before, shortly before her 12th birthday. The prince, who shares a birthday with her, is 15 or 16 years old. I suppose the young ages can be explained by it being mid-16th century, and also young people do have sex after all, but it still felt very wrong to me. Even when I was 16 or 17 myself, I didn't like that part of the book.

On the whole, I was dissatisfied with Zel because it wants to explore the darker nature of the witch, but otherwise gives short shrift to the rest of the story, and has a few elements that just didn't work at all for me. I think that for a retelling of a story, I want more depth to all the characters, not just the one, or else more attention paid to how the setting affects the tale. There wasn't really a resolution to the conflict with Mother and her devil bargain, which also left me frustrated after so much lead-in. I did like the way the narrative takes turns with different points of view for each of the three main characters, and the descriptions of the natural places, and food, and tower, and so on. ( )
  keristars | Jan 30, 2016 |
I loved this book! It is still my favorite, despite the books I have read since. I like how the story is told from different characters' points of view, it helps the reader understand each character's motivations. I love the retelling of old, beloved stories, and this does that very well. ( )
  izzycubs932 | Jul 24, 2015 |
Well told version of the Rapunzel story but made more complete by including narratives of Zel, her mother, and Count Konrad. Why did her mother trap her in the tower? Was it only to keep her from contact with men or was there something more? ( )
  mamzel | Apr 8, 2015 |
Another retelling that demonstrates Napoli's ability to make the "villain" a real person whose actions we do not condone but with whom we can definitely empathize. I found the Mother's obsession quite realistic, and I appreciated that Rapunzel was not just another damsel in distress.

4 stars ( )
  flying_monkeys | Jan 5, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
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For Mamma and Marie and Elena and Eva
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"Oh, mother, the goose is on her nest again."
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0141301163, Paperback)

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... "Will leave readers spellbound."-- Publishers Weekly, starred review

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:19 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

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. High in the mountains, Zel lives with her mother, who insists they have all they need because they have each other. Zel's life is peaceful and protected--until she encounters a beautiful young prince at the market. But her mother sees the future unfolding and she will do the unspeakable to prevent Zel from leaving her.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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