The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
1995. Harper. Paperback. 519 pages.
From: the public library
In a nutshell:
This is the story of the Wicked Witch of the West (real name: Elphaba) from her infancy to her fateful meeting with Dorothy.
It took me a little time to get into the book Wicked. After the prologue, the book starts with Elphaba’s parents and follows their perspective as they regard their literally green, ferocious infant. Her parents are short-sighted and not very likable. In addition, the world that Maguire created in his book Wicked is very dark. Murder, exploitation, and overall callousness rule the day.
The world remains dark throughout Wicked, but my enjoyment of the book increased while reading Elphaba’s story when she is a college student at Shiz University. It is there that she meets Galinda (known later as Glinda) as well as some other pivotal characters. The section that takes place at the university was definitely my favorite part of the book. I was the most invested in the book at that point, as the characters navigate customs, and strike up unusual friendships, and debate the issues of their world. Also, several students engage in stealth research.
The university section of the book is also where Wicked shines most strongly in its depictions of its female characters. It made me think of what is popularly known as the Alison Bechdel test (which was actually created by Bechdel’s friend Liz Wallace) which is primarily applied to tv shows and films, looking for those where 1. there are at least two female characters 2. who talk to each other 3. about something besides a man. So I thought of this test as I read the female characters in Wicked talking about theology and other matters to each other.
After a fateful journey to Oz to see the Wizard, Elphaba’s path diverges from the university and her family and her friends, and sees her to far-off corners of the land. It gets pretty bleak and there’s a part about a boy in a well that was like the epitome of the bleakness for me, although there were other moments in contention. It made me nostalgic for the university section, which was by no means rosy.
I didn’t quite buy into the intensity of Elphaba’s desire for her sister’s ruby slippers which unfortunately is the driving force of Elphaba’s story in the last act.
Still, I plan on reading more in the series to discover what else is in store for the remaining characters, as a lot was left unresolved in the broader story of Wicked. Also, Gregory Maguire’s world-buildingwas excellent and I’d like to see where he’s going with it. I’ve never seen the Broadway show, though I occasionally asked my roommate who has seen it, if such-and-such was in the musical or not. I’ve heard the ending is really different.
Excerpts from other reviews:
amused, bemused and confused – “I found the politics clumsy, the dialogue long winded, the characters uninteresting. It tries to be deep and meaningful satire and social commentary, but fails.”
Stella Matutina – “We can’t take anything for granted. We can’t assume that we’re in the Oz we all know. By casting this familiar story in a new way, he forces us to read actively. We’re decoding as much as reading.”
Stuff As Dreams Are Made On – Wicked does something genius. Gregory Maguire takes a character that’s come to represent pure evil in our culture and makes us question that.
7 responses to “Wicked by Gregory Maguire”
This is one of my favorite novels and, alas, the only good novel Maguire has written—although I will be finishing up the series with the release of Out of Oz. The way the entire novel explores Elphaba’s character without ever getting into her head is amazing.
I saw her desire for the slippers as a desire for familial love. Remember, the shoes are special and made for her sister, whose deformity makes her pious and better to their father. The shoes symbolize the fact that her sister was her father’s favorite (as Shell is largely glossed over, though he pops up later in the series), which compounds the shunning she receives in society.
I read this book after having seen the musical (a favorite) three times. They are REALLY different, and not just the ending. The musical, while it does contain some of the dark essence of the book, is a lot more fun and ultimately uplifting. I found the book to be dark and depressing, and I really didn’t like or relate to any of the characters. In fact, the only character I liked at all was Fiero, and he was only in it briefly. Overall it wasn’t to my taste, but I wonder how much of that was tainted because of the musical.
Lit Omnivore – Oh, that is not good to hear regarding his other books! What a shame. I think I might still check them out though. Regarding the shoes, I did understand what the shoes represented to Elphaba as far as the favoritism and the screwy family dynamics. But that her status as the family outcast translated into an unwavering fixation on obtaining the shoes just felt forced to me. *shrug*
Kathleen – Given the popularity of the musical, I’m not surprised to hear that it’s less dark than the book. The book’s atmosphere is not really conducive to having a good time at Broadway. I would like to see the musical though.
I thought the university section of the book was the strongest part too. Actually, until a certain character dies, I was SO fascinated with the book, I just couldn’t put it down. And after that, I was suddenly out, and didn’t care at all anymore. I’ve never returned to it because the bulk of the book seems so unrelentingly bleak.
Jenny – After that certain character died, it did get harder to proceed. It wasn’t enough to make me consider quitting the book, but it did halt my reading for a bit before I soldiered on. And what followed did contain some cool character interactions, but it was still pretty bleak.
Why haven’t I read this yet?! I started it once, but only got a few pages in and, even though I knew it was just “poor timing” on my part, I’ve never gotten back to it. (I think my bookmark is still sitting in the same place!) But I do want to, and the way you’ve written about it strengthens that resolve.
I just finished this book today and enjoyed reading your review! I was also the most invested when she was at Shiz, and afterward into her new “career.” The last quarter or so of the book was the slowest, but I was happy with it overall. Looking forward to the other books in the series!