Country girl Zel and a nobleman fall in love but their love is thwarted by her overprotective, jealous Mother who shuts Zel up in a tower to hide her away from the world. Zel is a young, innocent peasant girl who lives an idyllic countryside existence with her mother but is fast growing up into a beautiful young lady who will soon attract the attention of eligible men in her town. Zel goes to town only twice a year to help her mother buy produce - the rest of the time her mother makes her stay in their isolated cottage and shoos away visitors before Zel has a chance to talk to them. This story is told from the points of view of Zel, her Mother and Konrad, a nobleman of the town who eventually falls in love with Zel.
The story begins with Zel and her Mother making one of their annual trips to town. Mother notices that Zel's body is beginning to show womanly features and searches the market for a suitable new dress for her daughter's birthday while Zel waits at a the smithy to play with the horses. While conversing with the dressmaker, Mother suddenly realizes that Zel has reached a marriageable age. In her panic and fear over losing Zel, Mother promises to herself that she will never let Zel marry and leave her.
At the smithy, Zel meets a young nobleman named Konrad. Konrad's horse is suffering from an earache and, alone, the smith is unable to keep the horse calm enough to inspect the problem. Zel offers to calm the horse so the smith can check things out. It is evident that the nobleman is enthralled by Zel's beauty and after successfully removing the tick from the horse's ear, Konrad asks Zel if she would like a gift for her help. Zel asks him to get her a fertilized goose egg, which amuses Konrad. While Konrad runs off into the market in search of a goose egg, Mother returns. Mother is impatient to enjoy the market with Zel and the smith assures Zel that he will take the goose egg from Konrad and keep it safe for her until she returns from exploring the market.
Konrad's search for a goose egg is surprisingly difficult as there are no goose farmers in town but eventually he gets his hands on a goose egg. He is disappointed to learn, however, that Zel is not waiting for him at the smithy when he returns with the gift. He goes off to perform his duties as a Count but returns later in the day to see if Zel has picked up her egg as he can't seem to forget about her. He tries to learn more about Zel from the smith but the smith doesn't know much himself. Later that day, Konrad returns home to find out that he has been betrothed to marry a noblewoman.
Back at the cottage, Zel finds herself daydreaming about Konrad. She learns from Mother that her father had loved to eat the same lettuce that she does, a lettuce called Rapunzel that is her namesake. Mother sees her drawing a picture of Konrad and is immediately suspicious that Zel and that youth know each other and wants to put a stop to it as she fears that the youth is already coming between her and her daughter. Mother convinces Zel that she may be in danger from unknown enemies and takes Zel to a tower in the middle of the woods. The tower has no doors but Mother somehow makes a tree grow high enough for Zel to climb into the tower. Then, to Zel's horror, Mother leaves her in the tower and shrinks the tree back to normal size so that Zel is trapped.
Meanwhile, Konrad tells his father that he can't possibly marry the young duchess his father has chosen for him. After much convincing, his father agrees to give Konrad two years to find a suitable wife and if he can't find a wife in two years his father will make him marry the young duchess. Konrad immediately begins his search for Zel. Konrad searches for weeks and weeks, visiting the smithy every day for news. He learns that Zel and her mother only visit the marketplace twice a year and they are expected to return again in the winter. He also learns that Zel loves to eat a special lettuce called Rapunzel, which he begins to eat everyday, while thinking of her.
The next few years, Zel spends in the tower, befriending the woodland animals, painting, singing, composing poems. She also tries to understand why anybody would want to kill her. Mother promises that over the years, Zel will be able to talk to the woodland animals just like she can commune with the magic of the elements. Zel is also fed a special herb that makes her hair grow and grow. Meanwhile, Konrad decides to take a longer trip than usual into the wilds to see if he can find Zel. He overhears the sound of a fiddle, one lonely night, and follows the music to Zel's mother's home. He sees a goose there that is sitting on a nest full of rocks. Later on, he realizes that this must must be the goose that belongs to Zel - the goose that would appreciate a gift of a fertilized goose egg. When he next tries to find the cottage, however, it is nowhere to be found. Konrad searches for months and soon loses all hope. Eventually two years pass and he agrees to his father's planned betrothal.
Over the next two years, Zel has grown slightly addled from long hours spent by herself with no one to talk to. She tries to entice birds and bugs to come visit her in the tower by putting fruit and other treats on her windowsill. One day, she sends a paper bird out her window and sees a man on horseback appear in her clearing. Zel thinks she is imagining the man because he knows her name. Because she thinks she is imagining everything, she tells Konrad about how her Mother keeps her locked up in a tower with no door. She tells him that her mother visits her every day and is due within the hour. Konrad waits in the woods to see how her mother will climb up into the tower. Konrad learns that the way up into the tower is via Rapunzel's long braid of hair. He makes his first visit to Rapunzel after her mother leaves and vows that he will return with a rope so that they can escape the tower. He sleeps with Rapunzel and she becomes pregnant.
When Mother returns, Zel confronts her about the truth. She learns that Mother is not her real mother. Her real mother traded her for a bundle of magical rapunzel lettuce and given her to her adopted mother. Zel's whole world as she knew it crashes down around her. She realizes that she doesn't even know her adopted mother's real name as she's always called her Mother. She tells Mother that she will leave the tower soon to marry Count Konrad and give birth to his children. Mother is angered that Zel has fallen in love behind her back and has now forsaken her as her mother. Mother cuts Zel's hair then uses her magic to grow tree branches to grab Zel and carry her away from the tower. When Konrad returns, Mother pushes him off the tower to his death. Konrad was supposed to die but the brambles that grow around the tower cushioned his fall. They also pierced his eyes, however, so he has become blind.
Zel is carried far away and wanders the forest until some kind peasant women take her in. She gives birth to twin daughters and tries to live a normal life in the little village. Konrad finds his way back to his castle where his parents are horrified. He spends the next few months there, healing and adjusting to his new life as a blind man. When he is healed, he immediately sets off to look for Zel again. After many years of searching, he finally finds her and they are reunited. Her tears heal his blindness and they see each other again.
Best part of story, including ending:
I enjoyed this story because Donna Jo Napoli tells the point of view of Zel's adopted mother who is the villain in this classic fairy tale. By the end of the story, I actually pitied the mother who was consumed by jealousy and fear of loneliness.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene was when Zel sends her paper bird out into the woods and Konrad finds it. I enjoyed the strange banter between Zel and Konrad. Because Zel thinks she is imagining everything, she gives him the most cryptic and amusing answers.
Opinion about the main character:
I like that Zel retains her innocent and somewhat optimistic view of the world even though she is locked away and also even after she learns the dark truths about her past.