For readers who simply glance over the words and do no reading between the lines, Zel will simply read as a fleshed-out fairytale, in which the characters, settings and storylines are given more background and details. For those who take the time to read more luxuriously and deeply, they will find layer upon layer of meaning, symbolism, motivations and psychological breakdown that is simply intoxicating to discover. Underlying all of this is the concept of deep and powerful love, and its conflicting abilities to both nourish and destroy.
Set in the mountains of Switzerland in the mid-1500s, Rapunzel (“Zel”) lives an isolated and innocent existence with her mother in their small farm, finding joy in such simple pleasures as visits into town and her birthday celebrations. But when her mother leaves her at the smithy, Zel comes into contact with her first male influence — the Prince Konrad who is immediately captivated by her golden hair and pretty face. But if there is one thing that her mother will never allow it is for her most beloved daughter to be taken away from her. As Konrad anguishes away in a hopeless search for his heart’s desire, Zel is whisked away from all contact from the human world — to a stone tower deep in the forest, with no way of escape.
The story is told through three viewpoints, that of Rapunzel and the Prince (told in third-person narrative) and of Zel’s mother, made more intimate through her speaking directly to the reader. The three stories intertwine in a braid as tight as Rapunzel’s hair as they struggle against their own personal desires and the conflicting emotions of those closet to them, and Donna Jo Napoli lays bare the original tale remarkably loyally, while delving deeper into the depths of what makes the three protagonists tick: Konrad’s helpless obsession with Zel, Zel’s desire to please her mother yet follow her own path, and (most fascinating and frightening of all) Zel’s mother’s terror of loosing that which she loved most, and indeed gave up her very soul for. All the questions that you had when you first heard the Rapunzel fairytale are answered: (how did Rapunzel’s hair get so long? Why did the witch lock Rapunzel away? What were the witch’s real motivations?), and at the same time we get a deeper look at the tale that we do not expect. I was not entirely fond of the fact that the book was written in present tense (i.e., “she goes to the well” instead of “she went to the well”), but I concede it is necessary to pull one right up close to the characters and the decisions/actions they make.
Donna Jo Napoli is a remarkable author, enriching and illuminating this particular fairytale, making each fantasy element seem not quite as impossible as one might think. The glimpses into the nature of love, the abuse of children, the gift of free spirit and the reality of faith are thought-provoking and set off all kinds of discussions. I would also recommend Paul Zelinsky’s picture book of Rapunzel as a wonderful accomplice to this book — although his is set in Italy, it too creates a deep and beautiful retelling of Rapunzel that we have not heard before.