Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Review: "Wicked" by Gregory Maguire

Here’s the first effort in my campaign to catch up with some of the books that I’ve missed while trying to keep my reviews current over the last decade or so. I’ve wanted to read Gregory Maguire’s “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West” ($7.99, Harper) for quite a while, but just never have gotten around to it. Upon finishing it, my feelings were mixed.

The story, of course, is an attempt to give the reader an alternate view of, perhaps, one of the greatest villains of all time, the Wicked Witch of the West. It begins with her birth to a man consumed by his religion and his bored and unhappy wife, and follows her life, more or less, to her ultimate end at the hands of Dorothy. It attempts to paint the Wicked Witch, Elphaba, as a more sympathetic character than in L. Frank Baum’s book or the classic film. In some ways, Maguire succeeds, but in others he fails. While we do see some flashes of nobility in Elphaba’s character here and there, by and large, she remains mean, nasty, unlikable and unsympathetic. Through the story, (which has nothing to do with Baum’s books or the movie until toward the end) we begin to understand more about her and how she became the villain she is, but we’re also not really that upset when Dorothy douses her with a pail of water at the end, either.

I had the interesting perspective of reading “Wicked” while at the same time reading Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz” to my son at bedtime, which provided me with some good parallels. For example, it’s a lot easier to see the Wizard in the role he’s given in Maguire’s book if you’re reading Baum at the same time. You realize, in the original, the Wizard was kind of a bastard, and not the kindly but misguided old man of the movie. It’s not quite as much of a leap from Baum’s portrayal of the charlatan who arrived and usurped a throne to the tyrant of Maguire’s imagining.

I also like how Maguire weaves elements from both the series of books and the movie into the telling of Elphaba’s tale. It was fun for me, as a fan of both, to pick out the references, particularly those that won’t be familiar to readers who have only seen the movie.

Now, the disappointing aspect of the story: Maguire spends a lot of time with things that just aren’t that interesting. It’s particularly frustrating when Elphaba travels to Shiz to go to school, and we get a lot of long drawn-out conversation on politics, religion and society. During this stretch of the book, it reminds me of some of the books that I was forced to read in high school and college with interminable chatter about society that bored me to tears. It’s hard to imagine that the life story of, arguably, one of fiction’s greatest villains could be that dull.

While he’s expounding on politics and religion, he skims over things that would seem to me to be key to Elphaba’s development. For example, we see her as a toddler and Maguire begins to develop her relationship with family, then we skip to her as a teenager in a boarding school and lose the family link. He skips the birth of her sister Nessarose, destined to become the Wicked Witch of the East, and really fails to explore their relationship and how it developed very much. Elphaba also has a brother named Shell, who seems like an unnecessary afterthought with no real importance to the story. The murder of a character that’s key to her family and development early in the book is barely mentioned in passing. It seems all of these things would have had a more profound impact on her development than the prattle we get treated to during her school years.

Maguire gets much praise for the literary aspects of his books, and indeed, I enjoyed that to an extent. I like to be challenged every now and then, and even occasionally to have to go the dictionary when reading. At times, here, though, it also seemed that the author was showing off his vocabulary. To paraphrase Mark Twain, he uses a lot of $5 words when 50 cent words would be just as, or even more effective.

I did enjoy the book, and there were, admittedly, points in the story where I didn’t want to put it down, but in the end, there’s also a tinge of disappointment because I don’t think the story was nearly as good as it could have been, or as good as the Wicked Witch of the West deserves.

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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