Wednesday, February 18, 2009

REVIEW: Bound by Donna Jo Napoli

Published August 1, 2006.

Read and reviewed for the TBR Challenge hosted by and the YA Reading Challenge hosted by J.Kaye's Book Blog.

Bound is a Cinderella inspired story of a fourteen year old girl named Xing Xing living in a small village in northern China during seventeenth century Ming Dynasty with her Stepmother and half sister Wei Ping. Upon the death of Xing Xing's beloved father, Xing Xing became bound in servitude to her stepmother and half sister. She is barely treated better than a slave by Stepmother who not only insults and demeans Xing Xing, but also demands that Xing Xing perform all of the daily chores required to care for her and her daughter and their humble home. Xing Xing clings to the values taught to her by her mother and father, and also secretly practices the "three perfections" taught to her by her father--poetry, painting, and calligraphy. She finds solace in these arts, and in a beautiful carp that she befriends, if you will, in the spring from which she retrieves their daily water. Xing Xing treasures the carp more than anything, as she comes to believe the carp is the soul of her mother reincarnated.

Determined to find a suitable husband for Wei Ping, Stepmother acts against her late husband's wishes and begins the painful process of binding Wei Ping's feet in hopes that by making her feet smaller, she would be better fit as a man's wife. The process of binding girls' feet is always painful and dangerous, but is usually started when a girl is very young and still growing. As a young teen, Wei Ping is already full grown and having her feet bound now causes not only extreme pain, but also severe infection. Wei Ping's life threatening infection then becomes the catalyst for a series of dramatic events that could either ruin Xing Xing's future forever or grant her the freedom she's always longed for. The freedom to think and act for herself, unbound from servitude and unbound from the strict social expectations of a woman.

Bound is a stark, realistic retelling of the commonly known Cinderella type fairy tale. The setting of the story in ancient China, along with the historically accurate traditions of ancient Chinese culture help make this story incredibly realistic and offer the reader a stark look into the unfair expectations and treatment of women within the society. While the hardships faced by women during that time seem unjust and demeaning to the modern reader, the author was able to convey normalcy of those hardships during that particular time period for that culture.

In the traditional Western version of Cinderella, the stepmother and stepsisters are wicked, selfish, and ill-intentioned. Yet in Bound, the stepmother's actions are actually understandable and somewhat justified based on the norms of the ancient Chinese culture. This allows the reader to empathize with Stepmother to a certain degree, making the conflicts of the story not entirely black and white, which in turn gives this story more depth and complexity than the typical Cinderella story. No doubt, Stepmother does inevitably act in poor character, but she is driven by the need to literally survive and will stop at nothing to secure Wei Ping's and her own future by finding Wei Ping a husband. It truly is a matter of life or death for her and her daughter, and sadly, there is no obligation to secure Xing Xing's future or even to preserve her life.

Xing Xing is a lovely character. She is lonely and mourns the loss of her mother and father, both of whom she loved dearly and with whom she shared close relationships, yet despite this sorrow, Xing Xing is an optimistic young girl who through constant reflection of all her parents taught her, manages to maintain a love of life and a hope for a better future. Xing Xing is also insightful and clever, and learns when and where she should expose her skills in the arts where it can work to her advantage. Xing Xing is also empathetic and caring, especially towards Wei Ping and she does what she can to care for her and keep her spirits up. She is even gracious to Stepmother--at least until Stepmother betrays her in the worst way. Upon learning of Stepmother's betrayal, Xing Xing reflects on the following philosophy taught to her by her father. It is one of my favorite passages from Bound:

Learning is not the accumulation of knowledge, but rather, one thing only: understanding. To truly learn, you listened first with you ears, then with your heart, then with your qi.

Note: In traditional Chinese culture, every living thing possesses a qi. While its meaning is varied, it is largely thought of as the "flow of energy" that sustains a living thing.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story and found it to be a very unique and powerful rendition of the classic tale. At the end of the story, however, I wished it wasn't a retelling of the classic Cinderella, because I felt the lost slipper and Prince ending to be a bit anticlimactic. Through self reflection and self confidence bestowed upon her from her mother and father, Xing Xing grew from a child to an independent, brave young woman, and I wanted her to acquire her freedom being bound on her own, without the help of a Prince. While I understand that the story is bound by the constraints of the classic tale as well as by the realism of a woman's power in this time period, I felt the ending was rather incongruous with the rest of the story. However, it is still a wonderful, thought provoking story that shouldn't be missed.

Bound is a beautifully and poetically written retelling of the classic, familiar fairy tale-- a coming of age story that is enlightening and hopeful.



  1. What a wonderful review of a unique story Christine. Thank you.

    It truly sounds like a touching novel.


  2. I'm going to echo was Lea said - what a wonderful review. Thank you!

    I love books that are more grey than black/white. I'm going to keep an eye out for this :)

  3. I have several books by her in my stacks here. Interesting. Thanks.

  4. What an amazing review, Christine.

    wow, I'm all shivery.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  5. Great review! I like fairly tale themed stories. This book reminds me of Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale (also YA) and is based on a Grimm fairy tale. While not in a Chinese setting, it was definitely set in a culture informed by Mongolia.

    This sounds like a book I should pick up for my niece! :-)

  6. Lea:: Thanks. Bound is a unique retelling. I really enjoyed it and was also educated on the tradition of binding women's feet. It seems like such a horribly tragic custom, yet women wanted to do it. I think it was honorable, you know?

    orannia:: I think you'd like this story and am thinking it is probably readily available in a lot of libraries.

    Keishon:: I'm definitely interested in Ms. Napoli's other works, particularly her retelling of traditional Western fairy tales in different cultures. I visited the author's website and she has a very extensive list of published works!

    azteclady:: Thank you very much! I'm thrilled that I was able to stir such a response with my review.

    Renee:: Oh! We have that Shannon Hale book! In fact, I almost read it instead of Bound. I'll have to move it up the YA TBR pile. Have you read Hale's Princess Academy? It was also very good. I've always wanted to read Goose Girl and Enna Burning, as well! So many books, so little time....

  7. I actually listened to the audiobook of Book of a Thousand Days. It was really cool because the main character sings these healing songs, and the narrator actually sings them.

    It was the first one by SH I'd read, but Princess Academy also looked good!

  8. Wow - excellent review Christine. I just love reading your reviews - they're always so insightful.

  9. wow I might have to pick this one out! It sounds wonderful thanks for the review

  10. Renee:: The narrarator sang the singing parts. Wow. That probably made the audiobook that much more vivid. Very interesting. Maybe I'll read Book of a Thousand Days for next month's YA Challenge.

    Tracy:: Thank you!!! :)

    Sarai:: I hope you do get a chance to check this book out. It's very likely that your public library has it.

  11. Awesome review. I never heard of this author. Maybe because she writes (mostly) YA? But I like retellings of fairy tales and I like "shades of gray" stories so I put this book on my list of books to look out for. :)

    I first heard about the tradition of binding women's feet in a novel by Penelope Williamson. If I remember correctly, it was used quite effectively to show the development of a secondary character in the novel (letting go of tradition and embracing her new life in America).

  12. I JUST read and finished this story yesterday. I love Donna Jo Napoli's books! I think this was a wonderful story. I agree too, i wish the ending was different. I loved the part in the story where she decribes a poem of the koi, "golden eyes that are sparkling wet" i love the imagery/descriptive words in the book. I'm actually doing a research paper on the book now.

  13. Hi x0xwhitelinkx0x!
    Thanks so much for reading my review of Bound and taking the time to leave a comment. I read this book nearly two years ago, so I reread my own review to refresh my memory and I was instantly reminded of how much I enjoyed this tale.

    Donna Jo Napoli's writing is very poetic and she has a wonderful talent for drawing such a vivid portrait of the lives of the people in this ancient time and place.

    I've been thinking that perhaps the ending of the story is appropriate after all. I mean, you and I are modern women, so naturally we want Xing Xing to be able to be completely independent... but that would be far too unrealistic for even a fairy tale of this time period. So if we put ourselves into Xing Xing's world, I think we couldn't ask for a better ending to her story as I think the Prince will treat her with the respect she wants and deserves and most likely will allow her to exercise her will as much as --if not more so-- than most women of her time. What do you think?

    All the best with your research paper! :)

  14. You came to my Middle school almost 6-7 years ago and told us about this book I read it the next year before High school and loved it!! Thank you for coming to my school and telling us all about your trip to china.

  15. Hi Summar! Thanks for reading my review and taking the time to leave a comment. I'm afraid, however, that you have me mistaken for someone else.. even the author, perhaps? I'm just a reader who read this lovely book and wrote a review for it in hopes of encouraging other readers to pick it up. Anyway, I'm so glad to hear you read it and loved it, too! :)

  16. In your words how would you say china life was like based on this book. I know one was the binding of the feet but what else.

  17. Hi Marie,
    It was well over three years ago that I read and reviewed this book, so my memory of the details on life in China during this time period is rather rusty at this point. I can say, however, that the treatment and expectation of a woman's role in society is well crafted in the story. A daughter who is deformed or lacking in some way and hence not marriageable is then a burden to her family and often mistreated, abused or at the very least exploited.


Leave a comment! I love to hear what YOU think.
[I apologize, but I've had to disallow anonymous users to comment on my blog due to an influx of spam. I'll change it back as soon as I can. Thanks for understanding.]