Zel // by Donna Jo Napoli

This retelling of Rapunzel was probably one of the strangest, creepiest, most bizarre fairy tale retellings I have found in a long time.  1/5 for me – I don’t like books that leave me feeling as though I’ve wasted my time and will probably have weird dreams.  Honestly, this whole book read like a weird dream.

Napoli places her tale on a Swiss alm in the mid-1500’s.  Zel, a bright and happy young girl of around twelve, lives with her mother on their small holding, where they grow a garden, raise a couple of goats and rabbits, and only go to town twice a year.  The story is told in alternating perspectives between Zel, her mother, and Konrad (the love interest), although only Mother’s is in first person.  During one of their trips to town, Zel meets Konrad, and he is smitten with her.  This disturbs Mother, who wants Zel’s affection all for herself.  Mother tells Zel that someone wants to kill Zel, and that she must be locked up for her own safety while Mother finds the enemy.  She imprisons Zel in a stone tower.

This story made ZERO sense to me.  The original fairy tale was far more coherent than this book was, and a lot less creepy, and that’s saying something, because Rapunzel always seemed like a dumb story to me, and was creepy as all get-out.  Instead of clarifying the story and making the characters more personable, Napoli creates a situation that makes even less sense, with characters who seemed even more weird and puppet-like than the originals.

I think a big part of why the story didn’t go anywhere was that Zel is only about twelve, and Konrad about fourteen, when they meet.  And even though I understand that in mid-1500’s Switzerland, youths were married as soon as they reached puberty, I couldn’t buy into the fact that they fell in love at first sight, and that Konrad, after a five-minute conversation with Zel, then proceeds to devote the next several years to doing nothing but searching for her.  And would Konrad’s parents really just be like, “Oh, okay, you found this peasant girl that you met for five minutes and are convinced she’s the one so you’re going to do nothing except ride your horse around in the woods for the next couple of years?  Sounds great!  Here’s some lunch!”  I just couldn’t believe that aspect at all.  I had no connection to this driving force of the story.

Mother, who is, of course, the witch, also doesn’t make any sense, despite Napoli’s  backstory.  She made a bargain with demons so she could get a baby?  She stole Zel from her rightful parents?  She can control plants and make them grow?  So if she can make the tree grow to lift Zel into the tower, and make it grow so that she (the witch) can access the tower, why does she make Zel’s hair grow?  Why doesn’t she just use the tree all the time?  If she loves Zel so much and wants to do nothing but spend time with her, why does she lock Zel in a tower and only visit her for one hour every day?  Why doesn’t she just move them into an even more isolated cottage and they can both live there?  After all, she can control plants growing, so she could just grow a hedge around their house?????

Then Napoli skips like two or three years of life, and now we jump ahead to where Zel has literally lost her mind because she’s been locked in the tower, and isn’t that just a joy?  She cuts herself and scrapes herself on the stones, she sits around naked, her thoughts are scattered and completely creepy.

But she wears no skirts now.  Zel laughs and spit flies from her mouth.  It falls on her bare shoulder.  On one arm.  On the other.  On her breasts, her ribs, her stomach.  And now she is out of spit.

She looks at her bucket of feces and urine against the rounded wall.  Each month she leaks blood into that  bucket.  She takes the bucket and dumps it out the south window where the sun enters now.  But she does not stand a second too long in the light.  The sun’s seduction has to be planned against.  The sun tries to make her believe in colors.

What. The. Heck.

And it gets even weirder.  I’ll spare you.

The worst part about this book?  It’s a children’s book.  In the children’s section of the library.  And it’s 100% inappropriate for children.  I wouldn’t let a twelve-year-old touch this book.  It’s gross and it’s weird, and it has absolutely no message.  No story.  Nothing to take away.  And I’m not saying that it’s YA.  It actually was in the Juvenile section.  J FICTION Napoli.  For real.  Ick.

Oh, and also, Konrad of course finds her, climbs up her hair, and has sex with her.  Excuse me?  In a children’s book??  Especially since Konrad realizes that she’s mentally deranged, but then has sex with her anyway?  That’s a lovely lesson for young readers.

Konrad is insatiable.  His hands press along Zel’s hairline and temples, around the shells of her ears.  They follow the crest of her throat and circle the thin stalk of her neck, ever knowing.  He undresses her with trembling insistence.  His mouth finds her perfect.  He believes he tastes the heady maturity of ripe plums; the bitter edge of small, round lettuce leaves; the sweetness of fresh milk. He believes he might die, he might burst like the constellation of Perseus in August – a shower of shooting stars – but for her call, her cry, the knowledge that she needs him as much as he needs her.  The years of deprivation hone the afternoon, the evening, the night.

He lies beside her now.  Beside his true love.  She is a miracle; she is a woman, yet so much of what she says is childlike.  She is without guile.  Konrad knows that Zel has been gravely harmed.  Her talk is disjointed; at times she raves.  And her hair.  No earthly force could make her hair grow so long in two years, in twenty years, in a lifetime.  Zel has suffered under an evil power.  Konrad knows as well, he knows with more conviction than he’s ever known anything else in his life, that their love will restore her, their love will triumph over whatever wickedness the world holds.

So yes.  What I want is for fourteen-year-olds to think that it’s okay to sleep with someone you barely know, even if they don’t really understand what sex means, because “love” fixes everything magically.  What.  Even.  Gah.

Even the end is stupid.  Supposedly, Mother made a deal with these demons yadda yadda and they get her soul.  But when she dies, she somehow magically becomes a part of Zel’s soul instead?  Or something?  I don’t even know.  I only finished this book because it was a very fast read, and because I just couldn’t believe that this was it.  But it was.

Absolutely dreadful, 1/5 (0/5 really), and one of those books that I feel like I should throw in the trash instead of returning to the library where it may lure some other unsuspecting soul into reading it.