The Wager

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Don Giovanni was once the wealthiest, most handsome young man in Messina. Then a tidal wave changed everything. When a well-dressed stranger offers him a magical purse, he knows he shouldn’t take it. Only the devil would offer a deal like this, and only a fool would accept.  

Don Giovanni is no fool, but he is desperate. He takes the bet: he will not bathe for 3 years, 3 months, and 3 days. Beauty is a small price ...

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Don Giovanni was once the wealthiest, most handsome young man in Messina. Then a tidal wave changed everything. When a well-dressed stranger offers him a magical purse, he knows he shouldn’t take it. Only the devil would offer a deal like this, and only a fool would accept.  

Don Giovanni is no fool, but he is desperate. He takes the bet: he will not bathe for 3 years, 3 months, and 3 days. Beauty is a small price to pay for worldly wealth, isn’t it? Unless he loses the wager—and with it his soul.

Set against the stunning backdrop of ancient Sicily, Donna Jo Napoli’s new novel is a powerful tale about discovering what truly matters most.

The Wager is a 2011 Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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)
VOYA - Betsy Fraser
Don Giovanni knows that he is the most handsome youth in Messina, groomed to become one of the most important men in Sicily. He is certain of his own power and beauty, trampling over his servants to ensure his place in society and protect his reputation, until an earthquake and ensuing tidal wave washes away everything he owns and leaves him alone and destitute. The disaster, it turns out, could have been prevented if Don Giovanni had saved any of the three women placed in his path to test him. He is then offered a wager by the devil: he will be given unlimited money in the form of a magic purse which he will be able to keep but he won't be able to wash, change his clothes, or even comb his hair for three years, three months and three days. If he loses the wager or breaks the rules, he will lose his soul. Napoli ably describes the ensuing tribulations Don Giovanni undergoes as he becomes more offensive to be around even as he longs for companionship for the first time in his life. The slow regaining of his fortunes, made possible by the purse, is supplemented by his intelligence, the willingness to learn from his misfortunes, and the gathering of a group of servants and friends who care for him. Napoli's reworking of this Sicilian tale will attract readers of fractured fairy tales as well as fans of historical fiction. Reviewer: Betsy Fraser
School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up—Set in 1169, The Wager is a retelling of a traditional Sicilian fairy tale. As the story opens, Don Giovanni is a well-to-do spendthrift who gives little thought to anything but his own pleasure. An earthquake and subsequent tidal wave change his circumstances dramatically, and he is soon wandering the land as a vagrant. In classic Faustian style, the devil appears on the scene to offer a wager: he will provide Don Giovanni endless wealth in exchange for relinquishing his beauty—he may not change his clothes, shave, comb his hair, or wash for three years, three months, and three days. The devil provides the don with a magic purse, and the game is on. Suffice to say, the rot that grows on this hero is truly foul. Readers will be engrossed by descriptions of his decay, including vermin, worms, and open sores. Obviously Don Giovanni undergoes a dramatic change in how he treats the lowliest members of society. Evocative of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, this marvelous story is well told, and the rich, sophisticated language will grip skilled readers.—Leah Krippner, Harlem High School, Machesney Park, IL
Kirkus Reviews
After suffering a reversal of fortune, a handsome young nobleman enters into a dangerous wager with the Devil, surrendering his beauty and possibly his very soul to win a magical purse in this retelling of an old Sicilian fairy tale. Known for his "generosity of spirit and purse," 19-year-old Don Giovanni becomes a reviled pauper after an earthquake and tsunami devastate Messina in 1169. Forced to beg from town to town, Don Giovanni's situation is desperate when the Devil cunningly offers him a magical purse if he does not wash himself, change his clothes, shave his beard or comb his hair for three years, three months and three days. Determined to keep the purse and save his soul, Don Giovanni suffers unbearable misery and derision as his physical being degenerates while his inner being transforms. While Napoli's interspersing of historical events and natural descriptions adds verisimilitude to the fairy tale, the graphic details of Don Giovanni's physical and psychic anguish stretch credulity. No hero ever deserved a happy ending or a bath more. (Fantasy. 13 & up)
From the Publisher
“Napoli expertly sets the scene for this retelling of a traditional Sicilian tale. . . . The lifelike, tactile details of the story make it all eerily real.” —The New York Times Book Review

* “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. . . . Napoli never underestimates her audience, depicting human nature at its worst and its best.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Evocative of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, this marvelous story is well told, and the rich, sophisticated language will grip skilled readers.” —School Library Journal

“A surprise twist leads to a satisfying love story and closes the novel with more joy, and fewer devilish triumphs, than the original tale.” —Booklist

“No hero ever deserved a happy ending or a bath more.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Napoli ably describes the ensuing tribulations Don Giovanni undergoes as he becomes more offensive to be around even as he longs for companionship for the first time in his life.” —VOYA

* “Impeccable pacing conveys the burden of the three-year ordeal, and even those readers for whom the end is no surprise will breathe a sigh of relief to find Giovanni reclaimed and within reach of happiness.” —BCCB, starred review

“There's something rotten at the center of this novel-length fairy-tale retelling, and that's what makes it so delightful.” —The Horn Book Magazine


Praise for Donna Jo Napoli:

“Through this deeply personal story, Napoli paints a magnificent and mournful portrait of the Italian Renaissance, both tragic and triumphant.” —Kirkus Reviews on The Smile

“Another wonderfully researched and well-crafted novel from Napoli that artfully blends fact and fiction. Readers will be moved.” —School Library Journal on The Smile

“A dramatic and masterful retelling.” —School Library Journal on Bound

“Napoli creates strong, unforgettable characters.” —Booklist on Bound

“Superbly gifted at word painting.” —VOYA on Breath

“Napoli visits her magic upon the tale of Rapunzel, creating a work of depth and beauty. . . . The genius of the novel lies not just in the details but in its breadth of vision. Its shiveringly romantic conclusion will leave readers spellbound.” —Publishers Weekly on Zel

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805087819
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
  • Publication date: 4/27/2010
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,531,802
  • Age range: 12 - 18 Years
  • Lexile: HL580L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Donna Jo Napoli teaches linguistics at Swarthmore College. An acclaimed author whose books have won such honors as the Sydney Taylor Book Award and the Golden Kite Award, Donna Jo lives with her family in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.

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Read an Excerpt

Messina, 1169

DON GIOVANNI LOOKED OUT THE CASTLE WINDOW OVER THE strait that separated the island of Sicily from the mainland. He fingered the fine silk of his shirtsleeves and smiled. “The sea is bluer because it’s mine.”

“Don’t be absurd.”

He turned. A maidservant carried a tray into the room. The scent of honey and sheep’s milk ricotta promised such sweet satisfaction that his smile lingered, despite her words. He tilted his head. “What did you say?”

“You heard me.” Her attention was on the heavy tray.

Reckless woman. Girl, actually, judging by the skin on the back of her olive hands. Her arms were long under those thin brown sleeves. Shapely, in fact. A fine girl. He spoke coolly: “I’m giving you a chance to retract.”

She set the tray on the table. “No one owns the sea.”

Heat rose up Don Giovanni’s neck. He looked out the window again. If he stood just so, with his body slightly turned, the window well was thick enough that it blocked his view of the city of Messina; all he saw was his own property. “I own everything in sight. The sea is mine.”

“You really are ridiculous.”

He walked over with large steps and snapped his fingers in her face. “How dare you speak to me like that!”

“If you talk like a fool, you deserve it.” She arranged bowls on the table, never raising her eyes.

Don Giovanni blinked in disbelief. He wished the maid would lift her face so he could get a better view. She was familiar in a vague sort of way. Angela or Angiola or Annetta or Andriana or something like that. Some openmouthed name that resounded in the head. Bah, there were too many servants to keep track. He put his hand out to stay hers. “You’re finished,” he said. “Leave.”

“Are you firing me?”

“If you talk like a fool, you deserve it,” he said.

“A gran signore—a big don—more like a big clown.” The maid wiped her hands brusquely on her apron and left.

It was astonishing enough that she’d spoken so rudely, but for her simply to leave after being fired was beyond understanding. She should have fallen to her knees, professed regret, cried on his shoes. Even kissed them.

He would have forgiven her magnanimously. Despite her sarcasm, he was, indeed, a gran signore. Don Giovanni’s parents had died when he was thirteen. All their earthly possessions had gone to him, as their only heir. Don Alfinu, a neighbor and family friend, guided and counseled Giovanni. He made sure the boy continued his studies of Greek and Arabic, and he added French. Greek, because it gave access to cultured literature and, to be practical, because so many in northeastern Sicily spoke it. Arabic, because it gave access to scientific literature and, of course, because merchants spoke it. And French, because it was essential for a role in public life. Don Alfinu was grooming Giovanni to be the most important political figure of Messina. And since Messina was the second-largest city in Sicily, the king, in Palermo, would naturally consult Don Giovanni on matters affecting the whole island.

But Don Alfinu was mean-spirited; his actions were measured, nothing like the exuberant exaggerations of Giovanni’s parents. Why, the boy’s father used to burst into song at the sight of a split ripe watermelon. His mother pinned yellow orchids in her hair and danced in the courtyard bare-breasted in summer rain.

The orphaned boy nearly lost his mind listening to Don Alfinu drone on about loyalty to the pope and proper sexual behavior. All so restrictive and boring. So on his eighteenth birthday he’d taken control of his own property, his own destiny. He’d assumed the title of don and become a baron overnight. He gave lavish parties that everyone wanted to be invited to—and everyone was. He lent money freely. Don Alfinu ranted, calling him a wastrel, so Don Giovanni stopped visiting the old nag.

Everyone had heard of Don Giovanni’s generosity of spirit and purse. They admired him.

Or should. That maidservant was intolerable.

Now the mistress of the servants came in. He knew her name at least: Betta. She held her head high, and the ropes of her neck stood out. She was trailed by more maidservants carrying trays. She lit the many candles.

Don Giovanni backed to the wall and watched the table fill with dried white figs from the Lipari Islands—the very best kind—and cheeses, toasted pine nuts, bowls of coconut shreds. The profusion of colors and scents made the air above the table shimmer in the candle glow. His eyes glazed over. He felt tipsy. Maybe he was ill?

He rubbed his cheeks. Had anyone heard the girl abuse him? If so, he’d demand a public apology. Don Giovanni had to protect an impeccable reputation. He had plans. Don Alfinu’s complaints about his spending had gotten so strident lately, they worried him. So he’d invited everyone tonight for an extravagant gala to squelch any nascent rumor that his wealth might be dwindling. That way, when he went to borrow money to buy the land he wanted along the north coast, everyone would open their coffers without hesitation. Don Giovanni would increase his holdings and become the undisputed master of northeastern Sicily. He’d surpass Don Alfinu’s expectations, but—more important—he’d do it his own way, by being the richest, not the strictest.

This mistress was the most likely one to have overheard that distasteful exchange with the maidservant.

“Where are the Arab dishes?” he asked her abruptly.

“Eggplants preserved under vinegar with capers, excellent sire.” Betta opened her heavily lined palm toward a silver platter. “A superb Arab dish. And over here . . .” She opened the other palm. “. . . fried mullets with onions in cane sugar. A North African dish of Saracen origin.”

The words were delivered cleanly. Nothing mocked.

She walked to the end of the table, her long skirts swaying with the extreme motion of her hips. An unexpected seduction? “Roasted rabbit with raisins and almonds, a dish those Viking-hearted Normans took credit for.” Betta gave him a closed-lip smile, discreet. “But we know our people have made that since the start of time. As common as fried squid.” Her hand swept the area. “Over here, tiny lamb meatballs. A recipe from Palermo Jews.” With a sigh, she locked her hands, the fingers of one slipping under the fingers of the other, in front of her chest. Elbows pointed down, like broken wings. She was a waiting bird. “A proper table for our grand Sicilian don.”

Don Giovanni flinched at her last words. He narrowed his eyes. But Betta fussed with the decorative pine needles and holly boughs full of dried red berries. She stepped back for an admiring assessment, then hurried off.

There was nothing suspect in what she’d said. It was truth: Don Giovanni was a man of great spirit, who welcomed people of every faith into his home. In Sicily’s past, nasty things had happened: Muslim shops were pillaged, Jews driven from their homes. But nothing like that would happen these days, not anywhere near Don Giovanni’s castle.

So Betta’s words were sincere—and no one had witnessed the earlier maidservant’s insolence.

He glanced out the window over the strait. The sea lay flat. Dead. Well, what a strange way to think of it. It was calm, peaceful. A good sea. His sea, by God.

He blinked. A lone figure walked the beach. A woman. She looked back, upward toward Don Giovanni’s castle.

A woman alone in the evening? Maybe he knew her. Don Giovanni had already enjoyed the company of many women, the kind who might walk alone at night, but not for long. They flocked to him because he was the most handsome youth of Messina, everyone agreed. Don Giovanni’s prowess as a lover was growing legendary. He might even adopt Muslim ways and take a harem, like in the royal palace in Palermo.

Hmmm. Forget that beach walker. She could be a mirage, after all. The Strait of Messina was famous for the Fata Morgana, a mirage of men, horses, ships, all kinds of things. This could easily be a new trick of the waters.

Don Giovanni reached out to close the shutters.

But, wait, what was the woman doing now? Shedding an outer garment. Now her dress. Her undershift. The woman stood naked in this February chill. Exposed and vulnerable, like an opened oyster. Don Giovanni swallowed the saliva that gathered under his tongue. Her abundance impressed him. She waded into the water.

His heart went quiet. His arms fell to his sides. His breath came sour. Night swimming was dangerous, especially in the cold. He should stop her.

But the sea was calm. And he was host; already the clomp of hooves came, the clack of wooden wheels on stone.

How strangely this evening was beginning: three women, each capturing his attentions in her own way, each unreachable in her own way. Like a curse.

Nonsense. He was irresistible to women.

With the tip of a knife he popped a slice of orange into his mouth—refreshingly sour winter fruit—and went to the entrance hall to greet his guests.

His parties were known for elaborate banquets and dramatic spectacles. They rivaled the king’s in Palermo. Don Giovanni knew this, for he had been a guest at the palace twice in the past year. King William II was himself just a boy, two and a half years younger than Don Giovanni. But the king gave sumptuous parties. Yet still Don Giovanni outdid him.

Tonight would be magnificent. Festivities until dawn. Don Giovanni heard his heels click on the stone floors. Clomp and clack outside; click inside. All was fine.

But a gray form seemed to accompany him, at the very periphery of his vision. When he turned quickly to catch a full view, it disappeared. Nevertheless, he knew: it was the outline of the woman entering the water. A suicide?

But surely she wasn’t dead yet. He could run down to the beach and call out. He could send a servant in a boat. Or do it himself. A Catholic soul that died by her own hand would be condemned forever. He owed it to her.

These things clattered through his head, like birds caught in a closed room, all the while his guests arriving. Their cheeks brushed both of his as they kissed the air beside him. Ladies in brightly colored satins, damasks, brocades, silks, all with many buttons; gentlemen in breeches and tight linen hose, with jewels embellishing their shirts—they filed in noisily. Gaily colored birds.

The mistress of the servants was a bird. Don Giovanni’s thoughts were birds. The nobles of Messina were birds. What was happening that he kept seeing the same images? Common people said birds in a house were bad luck—and though Don Giovanni was far from common, the images still annoyed him. And three again.

Woozy once more, he leaned against the wall.

Throughout the evening Don Giovanni raised his hands to clap when others did. During the comedians’ acts he laughed when others did. But he didn’t hear a single thing. The clomps, clacks, clicks of earlier were gone. It was as though his ears had filled with oil, as though the oil overflowed down chest and back, as though he swam in oil.

Was the naked woman swimming?

Several times he passed the open window. The wooly bodies of sheep formed slate-gray ground clouds on the hillside. Beyond them the woman’s clothes remained in a charcoal-gray heap on the beach. And there were so many stars. Billions of stars. Over a dead sea.

Until one time, close to morning, the sea wasn’t dead. It trembled. Rain fell in sudden, heavy slaps. Lightning cut the clouds. Thunder drummed, waking Don Giovanni’s sense of hearing. And then the earth itself trembled. Faintly, but he felt it for sure. He cried out.

Gentlemen and ladies rushed to the seaside windows and threw open the shutters, jabbering. Roofs shook, walls fell, stones on the pathways bounced. The sea pulled away from the shore, as though sucked into a monstrous mouth.

In an instant the sea bottom lay exposed as far as Don Giovanni could see. The rain ceased; the new sun’s fingers grasped at the world. Marine creatures glistened in the slime that moved with their struggles. Fish flopped in the open air. Skeletons of wrecked boats stuck up obscenely.

Cries of pain, wails of grief threaded the air. City people picked their way through rubble, calling out to loved ones. Don Giovanni’s guests rushed to their homes. He watched the shore from his window as people pointed to the fish gasping. Groups hurried to gather them, reap the easy harvest. Children and fishermen and old people and women in rags. They cluttered the seabed.

Excerpted from The Wager by .

Copyright © 2010 by Donna Jo Napoli.

Published in 2010 by Henry Holt and Company.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 28, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    from missprint DOT wordpress DOT com

    The Wager by Donna Jo Napoli (2010)

    This book was shortlisted for the 2010 Cybils which is why (as a round 2 judge) I read it.

    I liked The Wager enough to finish it but it wasn't great. I didn't hate it but I can't put my finger on what made it a book I didn't hate if that makes sense.

    I wasn't familiar with the story of Don Giovanni (an Italian folk tale) before reading this so it was interesting to find a new fairytale but it felt very clinical and I never really connected with any of the characters or events. The ending felt very abrupt and compressed and yet it felt like the book took too long to get to the wager which was the main event of the book.

    I liked the Beauty and the Beast undertones in the story but it ultimately just didn't grab me.

    Some parts of the book also just really nagged me. It's 1169 in Messina, Italy. Why does Don Giovanni keep wondering who he was kidding? Was anyone at the time speaking that way?

    The meat of the story is about Don Giovanni making a wager with the devil that comes down to his not bathing for three years, three months, and three days to win an infinite amount of money (or lose his soul). He gets worms and lice. Sores sprout all over his body. But what about his nails? The more I think about it the more it drives me nuts that no mention was made in the wager itself as to whether or not Don Giovani could cut his nails. And if it wasn't, no mention was made of how long his nails got over the three plus years.

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  • Posted February 15, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Nice retelling of a fairy tale

    I thought this book was a great combination between a Faustian deal with a fairy tale mixed in. There is an author's note provided at the end of the book which explains that the story was based on a Sicilian fairy tale and even goes as far as to summarize the entire fairy tale and what happens to the characters in it. I'd have to say I prefer Napoli's version of the tale. It's much more happier and it has a great feel good ending.

    The concept of the story was interesting, although it sounded pretty gross that Don Giovanni couldn't bathe for such a long time. Naturally as the story progresses, he gets tempted to wash and bathe but stays clear of the temptations. What I liked about the book, was suddenly Giovanni finds himself among the "commoners" and not with his peers (his peers in fact, ignore him or treat him like dirt). It's an eye opener to him as he had the ego the size of a house in the beginning of the book. This provides great character development where he goes from being a selfish arrogant egotistical noble, to a simple man who develops friendships and acquaintances with villagers, peasants, farmers, and street urchins. That being said, I really did enjoy reading about Giovanni and his character development.

    There are graphic depictions of how dirty Giovanni is. I mean really really dirty. Like open sores and pustules dirty. It's gross, but you could say it's very well written if it gets a reaction from the reader. However the plot is clear and evenly paced and the descriptions of various scenes are excellent and can be pictured easily. I'd also have to say the little twist in the end, where the mysterious artist appears and their identity was revealed, was a nice little surprise and I thought it added a very nice touch to the ending.

    I thought it was a great retelling of an old fairy tale and will be looking for more of Napoli's works. It's a wonderful plot, Don Giovanni turns out to be likable and it's great 'happily ever after' story. Give this one a try, it's unique and different and a very enjoyable read.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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