Thursday, August 26, 2010

Review: The Wager by Donna Jo Napoli

Donna Jo Napoli's fairy/folk tale re-tellings have been favorites of mine since middle school. It's been ages since I actually read one, but even though I didn't know this particular folk tale, based on Napoli's past work, I decided to give it a chance.

The WagerDon Giovanni is rich and handsome, with a reputation for throwing lavish parties and being an excellent lover. All that changes the night that a tidal waves sweeps through, washing away everything Don Giovanni owned.

Now a penniless beggar, Don Giovanni is still determined to hold on to some of his dignity. He bathes and washes his clothes in the river. He uses proper table manners whenever he can get a bowl of food.

And then one day a man appears with a hell of an offer. He will give Don Giovanni a purse that will give him endless wealth - in return, all Don Giovanni must do is refrain from bathing or changing his clothes for three years, three months and three days. If Don Giovanni succeeds, he gets to keep the purse. If he fails, the Devil gets his soul.

Despite his misgivings of literally making a deal with the Devil, Don Giovanni agrees. After all, he's already a beggar and suffered the indignities of that lifestyle, surely having all the money he could want will make up for any faults in his appearance? And so Don Giovanni begins his task, determined to best the Devil, no matter the cost.

I actually read this at the beginning of July, but it has taken me awhile to figure out how to articulate my feelings about the book. I knew I liked it - not loved it, but certainly liked it - but the devil (haha, pun unintended) was in figuring out why. But I think I've finally got it.

This book takes its time. We follow Don Giovanni for over three years, first seeing something of his lavish lifestyle, then seeing it fall apart as he is forced to be a beggar and try to work for the first time, then the ordeal with the Devil. Because of the long time period covered, we get to see Don Giovanni's character change ever so slowly, making for an extremely interesting character arc that really doesn't become obvious until near the end when Don Giovanni is acting wildly different from the beginning. Because we get to watch him nearly every step of the way, some of the changes aren't obvious at first, so it's a real treat to watch the changes and then think back over what has led to such a dramatic evolution. Excellent, deft writing here!

Napoli's descriptions of Don Giovanni's descent into filth are absolutely disgusting - and I meant that in the most complimentary way possible! US society is obsessed with cleanliness, so in some ways it's hard to imagine what it means to truly be filthy, but Napoli brings the horrors to light. Don't read this while eating, unless you enjoy vivid descriptions of pustules and sores and the accompanying flies. Blech. I think I'm grossing myself out again.

This is far from an action packed story, but as the end of the wager approached, I found myself getting more and more tense. Don Giovanni has come so far - will he make it? If he makes it, will he still be sane at the end of it all? Will he truly change for the better, or is this a temporary improvement brought out by horrific circumstances? For such a quiet story, I was surprised by how invested I was getting in the outcome - and how even the end of a morality play could be surprising and satisfying.
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