Title: The Wager
Author: Donna Jo Napoli
ISBN: 9780805087819
Pages: 262 pages
Publisher/Date: Henry Holt and Company, c2010.

“Name the amount; it will give as much as you ask.” […]
“There’s a catch, though.” […]
“Surrender your beauty. Temporarily, that is. Three years, three months, three days. Not so long for worldly wealth, wouldn’t you say? In that period you must not wash. You cannot wash yourself, change your clothes, shave your beard, comb your hair. Easy, like I said. Simple. A little wager. A game. And at the end, you even get to keep the purse, with all its magic.” He kicked the purse toward Don Giovanni. “But if you break the rules, not only will the charm be broken, but the whole deal is off.”
“My soul . . . ?”
“Your soul.” (67-69)

A tidal wave in 1169 hits Sicily, making nineteen-year-old Don Giovanni homeless and forcing him to wander, beg, and take odd jobs to secure food for himself. Upon meeting a stranger who he instantly recognizes as the devil, Don Giovanni agrees to a wager; if he doesn’t bathe or clean himself for just over three years, he’s allowed to keep a small purse that produces all the money he ever needs whenever he desires. Initially, Don Giovanni thinks this is going to be easy and plans to remain in a hotel room for three years. However, people begin to suspect that something suspicious is happening, which puts him in danger. Through all the trials and tribulations, and with the devil tempting him when things start to become easier, will Don Giovanni be able to last the entire time frame?

I was actually initially surprised that this was in the young adult section. It’s not that there’s anything that I would object to in the book, although Don Giovanni’s penchant to objectify women might raise some parental eyebrows. The book starts slow, with the devil not making his entrance until you’re a quarter of the way through the book. Since the book takes place over the course of almost four years, readers are privy to vignettes instead of the entire time he’s fighting the urge to clean. In all honesty, while Don Giovanni leads a lonely life, his life before the purse seems more traumatic than what he encounters after receiving the purse. His hardships after the purse seem more a result of the devil’s unfair interference than any person’s or group’s reaction to him. While I understand it might have been more difficult in that time period, I sincerely think that someone with an endless supply of money would be able to manage this challenge if it occurred today, especially considering how technology connects people who are separated.

I wasn’t wowed by this book, partially because I feel like I’ve heard/read this story previously. Prince undergoes challenges in order to marry a princess. There are a few disguises, a magician (in this case, the devil) and some last-minute speed-bumps, but overall, somehow, justice prevails. It’s predictable, which I realize it’s supposed to be because it’s a fairy tale. But with all the rave reviews I’ve heard about Donna Jo Napoli’s work, I guess I was expecting something less routine. While it’s interesting to discover that the historical setting is real, it just doesn’t add enough intrigue to keep me occupied.