8 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: Bound by Donna Jo Napoli

Title: Bound

Author: Donna Jo Napoli

Genre: Historical Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Young Adult

Publisher: Atheneum
Publication Date: November 2004
Hardcover: 192 pages


Bound to her father’s second wife and daughter after Xing Xing’s father has passed away. Bound to a life of servitude as a young girl in ancient China, where the life of a woman is valued less than that of livestock. Bound to be alone and unmarried, with no parents to arrange for a suitable husband. Dubbed “Lazy One” by her stepmother, Xing Xing spends her days taking care of her half sister, Wei Ping, who cannot walk because of her foot bindings, the painful but compulsory tradition for girls who are fit to be married. Even so, Xing Xing is content, for now, to practice her gift for poetry and calligraphy, to tend to the mysterious but beautiful carp in her garden, and to dream of a life unbound by the laws of family and society.

But all of this is about to change as the time for the village’s annual festival draws near, and Stepmother, who has spent nearly all of the family’s money, grows desperate to find a husband for Wei Ping. Xing Xing soon realizes that this greed and desperation may threaten not only her memories of the past, but also her dreams for the future.

In this searing story, Donna Jo Napoli, acclaimed author of Beast and Breath, delves into the roots of the Cinderella myth and unearths a tale as powerful as it is familiar.

Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel

How did I get this book: Bought

Why did I read this book: I’ve had my eye on Donna Jo Napoli for a while, and when I saw this title available as an ebook through B&N, I couldn’t resist. A Chinese retelling of Cinderella?! How could I resist?


In Ming Dynasty China, Xing Xing leads a quiet and lonely life. After the death of her mother when she was a child, and her father’s recent passing, all Xing Xing is left with is her father’s second wife, Stepmother, and a half-sister, Wei Ping. Though she has no dowry, Stepmother is determined to marry Wei Ping off to a respectable man, and so binds her daughter’s feet (though she is much older than the ideal age for initiating the process). While Wei Ping suffers the excruciating pain of her binding, Xing Xing, or “Lazy One” as she is called by Stepmother, is left to care for the household chores. Seeing her half-sister’s pain and inability to leave their cave, Xing Xing does not mind her place and takes solace in the memory of her calligraphy and composition, skills her father encouraged her to develop when he was alive. But when Wei Ping’s bound feet begin to fester and putrefy, it is up to Xing Xing to fetch the help of a traveling medicine man, and save Wei Ping from a slow, seeping death.

Although it is technically a Cinderella story, complete with a ball, a prince, and a missing slipper, Donna Jo Napoli’s Bound is much more a tale about three women – Xing Xing, Wei Ping, and Stepmother – their roles, and their relationships with each other. Although the tone of the novel is geared towards younger adults and middle grade readers, Bound is a beautifully written, deeply layered and subversive novel, filled to the brim with questions of family, the role of women, and the notions of independence versus tradition.

In Xing Xing’s China, young women who mean to attract any sort of prospects must have their feet bound to achieve the graceful lotus shape and desirable gait. While Wei Ping’s feet are literally bound in order to be physically attractive and societally acceptable, Xing Xing also finds her self bound, by her precarious family ties. Although, like Xing Xing, some women had become educated in calligraphy and other arts, her world is still one steeped in tradition, and without a dowry or any potential for marriage, she relies on the kindness of Stepmother and the protection of her ancestors to keep from being sold as a slave. Stepmother herself is another intriguing character bound in her own way, by her own past and role in the world as a widowed wife who was unable to produce a male heir, and unable to attract a husband for her only daughter. Desperate to provide food and a living for her family, and to ward away a bad luck demon that she insists has taken over their cave, Stepmother is not the Disneyfied caricature of “Evil” – not by a long shot. The murky, tense relationship these three women share cannot be so simply reduced to labels like “good” and “bad” but are complicated, believable tangles of duty and emotion.

Rife with historical detail, tradition, poetry, and a touch of the fantastical (a particularly interesting twist on the idea of a “fairy godmother”), Bound is one of the finest retellings of Cinderella that I have ever read, and one that I highly recommend to everyone. Although, granted, there is little romance and the actual Cinderella story itself plays a very small, minor role overall, Donna Jo Napoli’s writing and thought-provoking themes are the true draw to this memorable book. Though parts are violent and gruesome and others are poetically beautiful, Bound is a moving reimagining that is not to be missed.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:

Xing Xing squatted by the water, silent and unmoving. Her stillness was a prayer.

It was answered: The sun glinted red. Only an instant and it was over, but there could be no doubt; her eyes had not played tricks: A white fish with red fins and golden eyes zipped past and under a lotus leaf. She laughed in delight.

“Lazy One, bring the firewood,” came the distant call.

In the past year “Lazy One” had practically become Xing Xing’s household name. She imagined her father’s wife holding one hand above her eyes against the sun that was so bright today, it had already burned off the morning fog. She imagined her frowning in impatience, then ducking back into the shadows of the cave. The girl picked up the armful of wood she’d gathered and rushed back along the path. Her hair was tied in two hanging knots that thumped on her shoulders as she ran. Hurry, they drummed, hurry hurry. The cold dirt licked at her feet. Hurry hurry.

But she was wrong. Stepmother had not gone inside. The woman shivered in the chill of spring, arms crossed over her chest. “Get inside, Lazy One.” She yanked one of Xing Xing’s hair knots as the girl raced past through the open door.

The air of the main cavern had changed already. While the roof was so thick that the temperature hardly varied from summer to winter, the quality of the air could change drastically. Right now it had grown clammy. Xing Xing knelt and fed tinder to the coals of the dying fire, then sticks, then the wood she’d just brought in. The door squeaked shut behind her. Stepmother didn’t oil the hinges on purpose because the noise scared away demons. Xing Xing got to her feet and turned around to find Stepmother standing right there, her hands on her hips, her muscled arms cocked like wings.

“Wood doesn’t grow from springs,” said Stepmother.

Xing Xing knew this was Stepmother’s way of asking why she’d come from the direction of the pond rather than the woods. She’d seen the beautiful pool fish twice now — yesterday afternoon and again this morning. It was her secret. Stubbornness entered her. She looked in Stepmother’s eyes without blinking.

“But water does.” Stepmother hobbled over and picked up the water bucket and carrying pole. She hobbled back and put one in each of Xing Xing’s hands. “Are you waiting for grass to grow under your feet?”

Xing Xing ran out the door again, leaving it open. She rushed through the buzz of the bees they kept in the hive on the side of their cave. Rush rush, buzz buzz.

“My daughter will wake soon,” called Stepmother after her. “And hunger hurts.”

Xing Xing returned to the pond, only too happily. She filled the bucket, then walked around the edge, looking. The thought of Stepmother’s daughter waking and complaining of hunger quickened her pace.

It wasn’t that her half sister would be truly hungry, not like the old beggar men who wandered the village, hands outstretched, and slept at night under the raised floor of the public pavilion. Rather, her half sister’s stomach would simply have emptied of the meal she ate last night. But she felt so poorly these days that Xing Xing didn’t want to allow even that small amount of extra discomfort. Besides, her complaints could result in a smack on the head for Xing Xing.

Xing Xing was practically running now.

The fish didn’t show itself.

You can read the full excerpt online HERE.

Additional Thoughts: Donna Jo Napoli is a completely new-to-me author, and she has an extensive award-winning backlist. I’m particularly interested in Beast (a Persian retelling of Beauty and the Beast, from the Beast’s perspective) and her new novel, The Wager.

Does anyone have any other recommendations?

Rating: 8 – Excellent

Reading Next: First Truth by Dawn Cook

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  • Jennifer @ An Abundance of Books
    January 20, 2011 at 5:21 am

    This sounds wonderful. If it does follow along the Cinderella story line, I’m assuming that Xing Xing marries the “prince”, but are we happy about this or is she just exchanging one life of servitude for another?

    Jennifer (An Abundance of Books)

  • Casey
    January 20, 2011 at 9:52 am

    I enjoyed Hush.

    From the Amazon Description: “Trapped in a world both unfamiliar and cruel, Melkorka finds that her powerlessness gives her clarity. That she is the master of what she says. Choosing to take a vow of silence, Melkorka becomes an object of fascination to her captors. And then she realizes that any power, no matter how little, can make a difference.”

    I enjoyed it not only for the story but also for the contrast between modern girls (who the media would have you believe never shut up or say anything of value) and this girl, who didn’t speak, but communicated all the same. The idea that your words have power, and that even a young girl can use that power was also very well explored. It was great!

  • Kate @ Candlemark
    January 20, 2011 at 10:08 am

    Oh, this sounds AMAZING.

  • Lisa
    January 20, 2011 at 11:28 am

    This review is really intriguing, especially because the author’s name really rang a bell. I realized I had read Beast when I was in middle school!!

    Although the writing seemed a little bare of details, I think I would give Napoli another go 😀

  • Christine
    January 20, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    Hey Thea.
    So glad to see you read and review this book. I really enjoyed it as well and vowed to read more of Napoli’s works afterward, yet never did. Thanks for reminding me to seek her out again.

    Jennifer, I reveal a little bit more about the ending in my review if you want to take a peek. I read and reviewed it in Feb. ’09 HERE.

  • KMont
    January 20, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    This sounds very cool. I love the alternate idea for Cinderella, kind of like how Wicked switched up the point-of-view for the traditional Wizard of Oz story.

    I thought I recognized the author’s name. It was the cover for The Wager, I think I must have seen it somewhere else recently. I liked the excerpt for Bound – thanks for bringing it to our attention!

  • Michelle M
    January 20, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    This review reminds me that I need to read more Napoli. She has such a strong voice and I love how her stories are never simple. You should try HUSH which is about an Irish princess who takes a vow of silence after being captured by slavers. Very good stuff.

  • de Pizan
    January 20, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    My favorite by her is Daughter of Venice, a historical fiction inspired by the life of Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, the first woman to receive a doctoral degree from a university in the 1600s.

  • LAJ
    January 20, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    I enjoyed reading Beast, but for some reason I couldn’t get into Daughter of Venice (I probably wasn’t in the right mood). The first book of hers that I read was Breath, which is a retelling of The Pied Piper story.

  • Tiffany M.
    January 20, 2011 at 10:58 pm

    I remember reading Zel, The Magic Circle, and Spinners together and enjoying them as somewhat dark versions of the tales. I did enjoy Beast though it was different than I expected. I remember getting drawn in by the cover of Sirena. That seems to be the most popular read by her when I was in middle school and ninth grade (when I read the majority of her work). I guess I would recommend Sirena the most, followed by Beast. The one I have and want to read is Song of the Magdalene.

  • Jodie
    January 21, 2011 at 2:58 am

    Great that the author has a backlist of fairytale inspired stories. I can’t get enough of that kind of story and especially interesting to see fairytale versions set in different countries, because this kind of tale pops up in a slightly different form in lots of countries.

  • Jo
    January 26, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    Zel and Song of the Magdalene are both excellent, but I loved everything I read of Napoli’s in high school. I will definitely be checking out Bound!

  • Chris
    January 27, 2011 at 11:34 pm

    Sirena is one of my favorite books by Donna Jo Napoli. It’s about a siren who decides that she doesn’t want to lure men to their deaths. I also recommend Hush.

  • Marie
    July 3, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    What was china life like based in that book bound. It seems like a very interesting culture. 😀

  • shakiabaker
    February 6, 2013 at 11:45 am

    this book is good for just the little bit i have read. i am doing this book for a class project and it is great. (:

  • anonoymous
    October 12, 2014 at 9:20 pm

    I am a student in 7th grade and our teacher had our class read it… i t was soo boring

  • amanda
    March 6, 2015 at 9:23 am

    Sirena is my all time fav, and only Donna jo Naploi book I’ve read, but I’d like to read more, I’d love to see a sequel to sirena, I want to see philoctetes come back to lemons, or sirens find a way to become human and travel to Greece to be with him. Beast and Bound both sound intriguing.

  • nicole
    April 1, 2015 at 8:59 pm

    I read this book at school it’s good. Some people might like reading it better because it is a fast read.

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