cover image The Wager

The Wager

Donna Jo Napoli, Holt, $16.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-8050-8781-9

Based on the Italian fairy tale "Don Giovanni de la Fortuna," Napoli's (Alligator Bayou) sumptuously written novel is set in 12th-century Sicily. Part historical fiction, part spiritual fantasy, the story begins when Don Giovanni, a well-to-do 19-year-old orphan who is being groomed for leadership, suddenly loses his castle and wealth to a tidal wave. The eponymous wager is, of course, a deal with the devil (who appears in the form of a well-dressed stranger). Don Giovanni agrees not to bathe for three years, three months, and three days in exchange for endless bags of coins. Readers follow Don Giovanni's journey of the flesh and spirit as he suffers humiliation and physical decay; descriptions of lush feasts and brightly colored brocades give way to wretched scenes described in lurid detail: "He'd worn through his shoes a couple of months ago... a cut... oozed pus. Each night he'd press out the guck, but by morning it would be swollen again." As Don Giovanni reaches toward generosity and grace, he is ultimately rewarded. Napoli never underestimates her audience, depicting human nature at its worst and its best. Ages 12–up. (May)