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Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire

By Teabelly | Books | February 15, 2010 |

By Teabelly | Books | February 15, 2010 |

Author Gregory Maguire gave himself a pretty difficult task, taking a well-known figure from literature and film, a well-known allegedly evil figure at that, and giving her a background before the tornado and the house landing on her sister. And not just that, but a background that would possibly make us feel sympathetic towards her. Can you really feel sorry for a woman who screams “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog too!?” Well yes, and no.

The novel starts with the witch’s parents, Melena and Frex, about to have their first child. We get some history of their families and how Melena has somewhat married down. They’re not expecting anything unusual with their kid, and get a nasty surprise when she is born green. And with rather sharp teeth. They name her Elphaba. The first part of the novel focuses on Elphaba’s first couple of years, as her mother tries to love her and her father, a unionist minister, is often absent due to his preaching. The second part is set during her time at Shiz University, and her meeting Galinda (later to become Glinda). Due to a misunderstanding, Elphaba and Galinda are forced to be roommates. Galinda is seemingly superficial, obsessed with her looks and dress and ignoring the fact that she has a brain. She initially cannot bear being Elphaba’s roommate and the possible butt of jokes by others. Later it is shown that she can indeed think for herself, something Elphaba brings out in her and appreciates, and they become friendly.

Having become involved in the work of Doctor Dillamond, an Animal whose rights are slowly being taken away by the mysterious and powerful Wizard of Oz, Elphaba becomes outraged by his treatment and goes to the Emerald City to plead for Animal rights to be restored. Getting nowhere, she leaves the university for a secret life away from all her friends, working against the Wizard. But here she falls in love with a former classmate, and after things go wrong ends up in a sort of nunnery for years. Overcoming her grief, she leaves to make amends with the wife of her former lover, staying some time as a guest, becoming more and more paranoid and dabbling with witchcraft. And then there’s that damn tornado …

This is probably a terrible synopsis but there’s so much going on here that it’s difficult to condense it and have it make any sense. I started off really loving the book. I loved the writing and the imagination that had gone into building her story and this world. I will say I have never read any of the Oz books and have only seen the film and its sequel, so I don’t know how much Maguire takes from official Oz history and how much he has made up to support his idea of Oz. The first half completely had me; it was funny and intriguing and I followed Elphaba’s journey happily, swept up in wondering how she would become the witch we know her to be. And then it all fell apart somewhere in the middle. I was fine up until she sought her lover’s wife and ended up trapped there. I could even deal with her animal-rights activism of the part before, but this unfortunately became bogged down and boring and my attention wandered severely. I stopped caring about Elphaba on any level, and that’s a shame. I think it became too twisted towards the end, too caught up in politics with the Wizard, and focused less on her and how she was feeling. It stopped being believable, which is funny when you consider its genre. But I had been on Elphaba’s side mostly, or at least I understood her motivations. I couldn’t say the same as the book neared its end. I’m not saying I necessarily liked her, as I don’t think that’s the point, but I did sympathize with her initially, and then she lost me.

I also couldn’t shake my previous knowledge of Oz, no matter how limited. I thought the story would fit into what we already knew, but there’s so much more that is added on top that I stopped being able to see this book and the originals as having taken place in the same world. Take the character of the Wizard, for instance. I have only ever known him as this bumbling fool who hides his real self behind a curtain and then is thrilled to be able to finally go home. And yet here he’s this sadistic, vindictive man determined to rule over all of Oz. He’s the real villain, and Elphaba is caught up in trying to destroy him. I just couldn’t come to grips with it.

I was really disappointed with this, because I had so enjoyed the beginning, and then became reluctant to even finish it. I do however still very much want to see the musical, and hopefully that won’t disappoint, as I know they’ve changed some things for the stage.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Teabelly’s reviews, check out her blog.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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