Apr 9, 2008

Zel by Donna Jo Napoli

This retelling of “Rapunzel” takes place in sixteenth century Switzerland. Zel and her mother live alone in an isolated mountain house. Zel is a happy child with a great fondness for animals and a talent for drawing. Shortly before her thirteenth birthday, they go to the market in a nearby town. Zel’s mother leaves her alone in the smithy for a while, so that she may get her a surprise birthday present. During that time, Zel soothes the horse of a young count who comes to the smithy, and the young man takes a liking to her. After that visit, Zel begins to show some interested in the boy, portraying him in her pictures. As a result of this, her mother locks her away in a tower.

Donna Jo Napoli uses multiple points of view to tell this story: the mother’s, Zel’s and Konrad’s (the young Count). At the start of the book, the tone is simple, even light, but it grows increasingly dark and becomes downright disturbing as each of the main characters deals with a different kind of madness. Konrad due to his obsession with Zel, the mother due to fear and guilt, Zel due to the effects of isolation.

Zel is kept in the tower for two years, completely isolated except for her mother’s daily one hour visits. Donna Jo Napoli does not shy away from showing the effects of this imprisonment and isolation on the mind of the young girl. There is a chapter in particular where this is shown so chillingly and realistically that I doubt I’ll ever forget it. Very dark, very powerful stuff.

Having access to the mother’s perspective makes her at once more human and scarier. She is the only character whose story is told in the first person. She’s a woman whose greatest desire was to be a mother, who was willing to do anything to fulfil this desire, and who loves her daughter above all things and does not wish to lose her. She is kind and loving to her daughter – as long as they are alone. As long as Zel doesn’t show any interest in another human being. But her love is a love that smothers, a love that wants to own, a love that is too eager. And this is a very frightening thing. We all fear losing those we love. We all worry about their safety. But if we are willing to forsake their happiness in the name of our fear, can we call it love? It seems to me that a mother who denies her child the chance to live in the name of safety is not actually concerned with her child’s safety, but with what she herself would feel if they were to lose her child.

Zel’s mother is not demonized. She is portrayed in a very human way – and it’s that humanity that makes her one of the most disturbing characters I have ever encountered. Take a look at this passage:
I had raised Zel wrong. I had raised a creative, curious child. I had let the child develop her own inclinations. I had clapped with pleasure at every new discovery, new talent. I had raised a child who could love easily and whom anyone could love back. Oh, what a terrible twist. I had raised a child in the very best way I knew how, and it was that mistake that kept her from me now.
I hold that child in a tower. The only one I love, the one I love more than life itself; for two years I have held that one in a stone room.
And I love alone. I live the life I would have lived if I had never had Zel in the first place. Only it is far worse—for I know what I have lost.
How can I explain my reaction to this book? I absolutely loved the first half. About halfway through I was disappointed, and by the end I was convinced again. And I have been thinking about the book a lot ever since I put it down, and the more I think about it, the more I like it. This is a story that will stay with me for a while.

I was disappointed because at one point the story took a Faustian turn that seemed to me to undermine the mother’s motivation, and thus the strength of the story. I can’t really explain this properly without spoilers, so please forgive me for remaining vague. And I realize that some readers would feel the exact opposite. It’s just that, for me, the mother’s motivation was easier to understand when it was “just” keeping the girl with her forever. At some point we learn that there is more to it than that. But the reason why by the end I was convinced again was the fact that I realized that ultimately it didn’t matter. Her motivation actually remained the same. What the turn did was show how far she was willing to go to achieve her goal.

That only leaves one thing that was slightly disappointing: Konrad and Zel’s relationship was not realistic enough. This is something Orchidus was discussing just the other day in relation to Robin Mckinley’s Beauty. Normally in a fairy tale I am as willing to suspend my disbelief in love at first sight as I am to suspend my disbelief in magic and dragons. I will overlook unrealistic romance, although I do appreciate being able to understand how and why the characters connect, where their love comes from. I was a little disappointed in this case, though, because Zel and her mother’s relationship is so detailed, so psychologically complex, that there is quite a contract when it comes to Konrad.

I liked how closely Donna Jo Napoli stuck to the original fairy tale, even keeping the details that the Brothers Grimm edited out of later versions. And I liked how this novel takes a good look at the psychological implications of this tale – how it explores the dark side of maternal love, which is not something you find in fiction all that often.

I picked this one up because of three great reviews by other OUaT2 participants: Jenclair’s, raidergirl3's and Kim's. Thank you all for making me aware of this book's existence.

Even more reviews:
Lost in a Good Story
A Striped Armchair
books i done read
Rhinoa's Ramblings
Maw Books
Literary Escapism
Book Addiction


  1. It is interesting how many people are reading this book. Your review and especially your reaction to the book has me intrigued. I'm glad you stuck with it after it started to go south for you and I'm even more happy that you felt the story picked back up.

  2. oops, and that was from me, -Carl
    My daughter's gmail account is driving me crazy.

  3. I agree with you about the Faustian turn--it wasn't needed. The lack of development between Zel and Konrad is typically fairy tale, but the mother's tale was more interesting because of the development.

  4. I just picked this book up from the library yesterday and am looking forward to it. I'll come back in a day or two and read your review more in depth then (I hate knowing to much about a book!).

  5. awesome review!

    You put into words the things i felt while I read it. The mother was really the main character; and how Napoli changed the mood in the middle of the story made it feel like two different books.

  6. Wow...I wrote this one down after reading Kim's review, but now I'm more anxious than ever to pick this one up. That passage you quoted was downright chilling, especially knowing that there really are people in this world who are just this sick and obsessive.

  7. I really want to read this book after reading your review, Nymeth! It's scary to know some people think and react that way!

  8. What a thorough review! It's amazing that a book for young adults can delve so deep into the dark side of humanity! One of these days I have to see for myself what this book is like. Thanks for making me aware of this book. :]

  9. I loved this book. Great review!

  10. I have read some great reviews of this and am looking forward to reading it (probably not until the end of the year though). It's a shame about the relationship not meeting your expectations, but overall it sounds like you really enjoyed it which is the main thing I suppose.

  11. I've never read Zel, but I know my former thesis director used it in classes ALL the time. I'm sure it was probably for that lingering sense of uncertainty that you described in analyzing it and deciding what you think. I need to give it a go!

  12. Sounds to be an excellent read. To the library!

  13. i was going to order a couple of copies for the store but it's out of print:( and the library doesn't have it either...

  14. Carl: I'm definitely glad it picked back up. I never really considered quitting because the book is very short, but for a moment there I was convinced it'd be a let down. I was so glad to be proven wrong.

    Jenclair: The mother's tale really was the most interesting bit. The book would probably have been a slightly better book without that turn, but in the end I was happy that it didn't detract from the story like I feared it would.

    Maw Books: I look forward to your thoughts on it!

    Raidergirl3: Thank you :) It did feel like two different book.

    Debi: The whole book is very, very chilling. And yep, unfortunately there are examples of this degree of obsession out there.

    Melody: It is scary. I'd go as far as saying that this scared me more than any horror story I've ever read.

    Orchidus: I was surprised this is classified as YA, actually...it's such a dark book.

    Tricia, thank you :)

    Rhinoa: Yes, overall it was great. The thing about Zel and the Count only stood out because the contrast is so great, but then again perhaps that's part of the point she was trying to make. That it is healthy to let young people follow their feelings, even if in the end they find out for themselves that there's nothing very substantial there.

    Andi: American Born Chinese, Deerskin and Zel...I detect a pattern of awesome taste :P I finished Deerskin yesterday, actually, and it has quite a bit in common with Zel. Both are very uncomfortable books, books that I keep thinking about, books that engaged me both intellectually and emotionally. I can see why they'd be used in class.

    Aaron: I hope your library has it, and I hope you enjoy it!

    Valentina: That's too bad. I got my copy from TheBookDepository, and I was taking a lot now and it's no longer available. Wow, I feel lucky. Looks like I got the last copy! I hope it gets back in print, it's such a good book.

  15. This looks like a great book! Thanks for the recommendation. I had never heard of it before, but it sounds interesting (adds another one to the list.)

  16. Another book to add to the list. . .
    I love your reviews - you give just enough information to make the stories intriguing without giving away too much - thanks!

  17. What a great review! It's top of my list now of books to get...thanks for reviewing it,and you gave me chills describing the madness of each character. I really want to rush out and get this now! And like one of your commenters said, you don't give the plot away, which is the best kind of review.

  18. Kim, I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

    Ken, thank you :) I can honestly say the same about yours.

    Susan: Thank you for your kind words :) I think that as a fellow fairy tale lover you will really enjoy this one!

  19. I recently read another review of this book--perhaps it was Raidergirl3. Anyway, it sounds like an entrancing story--I've always loved the tale of Rapunzel. And all the better with a story that will stick with you once it is over--I love those books. I think the last one I read like that was Remains of the Day.

  20. Remains of the Day was definitely one of those books for me too. Those are the best kind :)

  21. I'm so excited to get the copy of this I just mooched. Then I'll be buying Shannon Hale's version in the fall. It's a disease, I know, but so many others seem to have it as well.

  22. Mother's "I had raised Zel wrong" passage has stayed with me ever since I first read this book when I was a kid. This is hands down one of my favorite fairy tale retellings and I think of it often - but I may go insane myself if I never get to taste rapunzel!! (I think it's probably disappointingly similar to arugula). My sister and I just covered Zel for our podcast, Dragon Babies - check it out if you have a chance! Thanks for the great review.


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