Book Review: The Wager

The Wager
by Donna Jo Napoli

The Wager is based on the Sicilian folktale of Don Giovanni de la Fortuna. Don Giovanni is a wealthy & powerful Sicilian in the 12th century, until a tidal wave wipes out his entire fortune and leaves him homeless. After 9 months of homelessness and poverty, the devil offers him a purse that will give him unlimited money, if he agrees to go without bathing for 3 years, 3 months, and 3 days. If he bathes or changes his clothes in that time, then his soul is forfeit to the devil.

Going without bathing for three years sounds bad, but even the vain Don Giovanni thinks that it can’t be worse than hunger and cold. But the reality is horrific. As time goes on, Don Giovanni is subject to every possible pain, humiliation, and degradation, from waking up in a pool of vomit after being mugged, to insects and sores. Through it all he can’t bathe, can’t change his clothes, or do anything to relieve his condition. And on top of it all, he has to be constantly on guard, as the devil tries to trick him into losing the bet.

But as the exterior transformation progresses, so does a corresponding and opposite interior transformation. The more isolated that Don Giovanni becomes from other people, the more he comes to care about his fellow man. The themes of inner versus outer beauty, and redemption, are, perhaps, to be expected, but are no less moving for that.

The descriptions of Don Giovanni’s condition are almost too horrible to bear, and the story is taut with suspense about whether he will make it to the end of the bet. Yet there is also beauty all around. The island of Sicily is brought vividly to life, from the beauty of nature to the various cultures–Norman, Greek, Muslim, Sicilian–that inhabited the island in the twelfth century. There’s an incredible variety of food, and descriptions of artwork of all types. The richness of the environment contrasts shockingly with the revolting descriptions of Don Giovanni.

The Wager is an exquisitely written and highly readable folktale retelling.

The Wager is a 2010 Cybils nominee in the Fantasy/Science Fiction: Teen category.

Book reviewed from library copy. FTC required disclosure: The links above are Amazon Associate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links.