Growing Beyond its Roots: Reviewing Donna Jo Napoli’s Zel

Zel cover

The prolific Donna Jo Napoli has authored dozens of books for children, from picture books to young adult novels, and has harboured a particular passion for retellings of fairy tales. She fashions a fascinating version of the Rapunzel story in her young adult novel Zel, which retains the plot of the Brothers Grimm tale while realizing the characters and events with compelling depth and sensuality.

First published in 1996, Zel spans several years, charting its title character from childhood to womanhood. The novel opens in 1500s Switzerland: Zel lives a sheltered life with her protective and quietly sinister Mother on a small farm in the Alps. On the cusp of Zel’s 13th birthday, Mother takes her on a rare trip into the town market where Zel befriends young Count Konrad, setting in motion her first romantic stirrings and, by extension, Mother’s desperate attempts to isolate her. By rotating the narration of the story between Zel, Konrad, and Mother—who is the only character portrayed in first person—Napoli plunges past the surface stereotypes of the Grimm characters to wade into the desperation, desire, and determination of each. The backstory and motivations of the Mother-witch are made clear and her descent into villainy (and journey toward redemption) carries as much importance as the relationship of Zel and Konrad. The sections focusing on these two are narrated in third-person present, a combination not often seen in YA fantasy, but it is not jarring. If anything, the present tense enhances the immediacy of Zel’s struggles through her imprisonment and underscores the uncertainty of Konrad’s search to find her again.

By granting us greater insight into each character, Napoli extends the original love story into a tale of increasing depth and power. Though the chance meeting of Zel and Konrad at a blacksmith shop inspires love at first sight, it is far from cliché. It is Zel’s surprising, creative personality that entrances Konrad more so than her looks. Konrad’s character also provides an interesting subversion of gender conventions: though he retains a traditionally masculine role as Zel’s would-be rescuer, he also faces domestic struggles usually reserved for female characters, fending off his father’s desire for him to marry against his will.

Years pass as the chapters of the story progress and despite its fantastical elements, Napoli realistically portrays, with growing intensity, the darkness that could befall an adolescent girl locked up for the formative years of her youth. Zel descends into madness, her creative energies as confined—and as unstoppable—as her bodily development. Meanwhile, Konrad, haunted by his feelings for Zel, descends into an obsessive search for her. When at long last, it seems he will abandon the search and let his rational mind prevail, fate propels him, Zel, and Mother together for a final climactic struggle that balances redemption and despair, awakening and fulfillment for every character.

The opening sections of the novel are characterized by a gentle tone, interspersed with details of rural Swiss life in the late Renaissance. There are also notes of danger in Mother’s voice and hints of her powers as a witch, however, in the opening chapters, Zel reads more like a Middle Grade novel than YA, and it surprised me (in the best of ways) as this relatively relaxed beginning crescendoed into a story of deep urgency and passion.

There is also a powerful organic quality about Zel. Part of this is how naturally the intensity of the plot grows. The characters also literally have strong connections with nature (Zel is named after a type of lettuce like in the Grimm tale and she is an animal lover; Mother’s abilities as a witch allow her to manipulate the growth of plants). Most significantly, the true love in the novel is an organic love, unrestrained by rules or institutions. Zel outgrows and out-loves the restrictions of her mother. Konrad rejects his station and political duties to pursue the journey of his heart. And, in the end, they marry without ceremony or official sanction. This is a love of two souls in resonance. It is rife with anguish and struggle, but it is undeniable, unconstrained, and irrepressible.

Readers of Patricia McKillip and Robin McKinley should find themselves at home with Napoli’s novel. The gradual shift in tone makes it difficult to pin down an ideal age of reader for Zel within the YA range, but this also makes it a novel that can unfold new experiences when reread. Yet if there is timelessness in fairy tales, it is not static in the case of Zel. Rather, at the heart of the novel are growth, change, and maturation, and these themes of transformation are what make the book last.