Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Wager, by Donna Jo Napoli

When a young and spendthrift Don Giovanni has his fortune wiped out by a tsunami, he finds himself a beggar on the roads and through the towns of Sicily. In a moment of dire desperation, the Devil approaches him and proposes a trade: he will give Don Giovanni a purse that produces endless money in exchange for a pledge that Don Giovanni will not bathe or change his clothes for three years, three months, and three days. In the ensuing ordeal, Don Giovanni learns many lessons about himself and the people around him, but can he make it to the end?

Napoli does a wonderful job of retelling classic stories. Through thorough research, she is able to pull out details that elucidate period history and use them to point out modern relavence. Her work, in sum, is the classic example of what a historical novel should be.

Given the sheer volume of her work, it is natural that some of it is better than others. This particular book falls somewhere in the middle. The source material of only 2-3 pages is a bit thin for a full-length novel, as Napoli herself admits. The story itself suffers from being spread over such a long time period (with the inevitable result that the long stretches of time are hard to fill with anything of interest). And so the tale plods along and is laden with repetitive and extended references to hunger and disease, which simply grows tedious. Don Giovanni, while he shows some growth from being vain and self-important, really starts off as a not-so-bad guy and ends up pretty much the same. His personal growth is simply not terribly obvious.

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