Pros: incredible work of art
Cons: you know how it's going to end
I was introduced to the music of the Broadway musical Wicked not that long ago, and was immediately intrigued with the idea of the Wicked Witch of the West not being as evil as she was made out to be in The Wizard of Oz. What if it was the Wizard who was the evil one? The idea of turning such a revered story on its head was too much to resist, and I was pleasantly surprised when my friend starbreiz sent me some items from my Amazon wishlist, including Wicked by Gregory Maguire.
::: There Is Always More to the Story :::
Gregory Maguire's first novel turned one of the most established legends of our time on its ear with its premise: what if the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz wasn't so wicked after all, but was actually viewed that way based only on perception? The story surrounds the life of Elphaba, the daughter of a minister and a woman who wasn't the most faithful minister's wife ever. Her unfortunate tale begins with her birth, when she is born with green skin, teeth so sharp she bites her own skin, and an aversion to water. Her mother turns to herbal drugs, and her missionary father believes that Elphaba's condition is somehow his fault. The only stable figure is really Elphaba's mother's former nanny, who comes to take care of the little green girl.
Elphaba's childhood is defined by her father's missionary work in Quadling country, the poorest section of Oz, and a far cry from the upper class of Munchinland to which her mother was born.
Maguire picks up the story when Elphaba is older, and a new student at Shiz, the university of Oz. The university is divided into all-male and all-female colleges, and Elphaba ends up rooming with the very snobby Galinda, much to Galinda's dismay. Elphaba quickly becomes suspicious of the headmistress, Madame Morrible, and after an Animal (the walking, talking, intelligent versions, much like the Cowardly Lion) professor dies under mysterious circumstances, Elphaba finagles an audience with the Wizard for herself and Galinda, where she quickly realizes that the Wizard is not the paternalistic ruler he was believed to be.
Elphaba sends Galinda back to Shiz and begins a life of resistance, first on behalf of the Animals, then with a life in a convent (or mauntery, as they call it), and finally ends up in the land of the Vinkus, where she creates her famed winged monkeys, begins to dabble in sorcery, and her story intersects with the story of Dorothy that we all grew up with.
::: Politics, Social Classes, Despots... Just Like Real Life :::
Trying to sum up the various plots in Wicked is impossible, and I feel impotent even attempting it. Maguire has created an incredible character and the book will leave you unable to watch the movie the same way again. Not only has he created a rich and sympathetic character in Elphaba, but he has also created a world that seems so real that every time I had to put the book down to do something else I felt as if I was being jolted from one world to another.
While at times it might seem as if Maguire is leaving too much out, jumping as he does from one period in Elphaba's life to another, he has chosen the most significant points to focus on; each set of experiences is one that would have shaped the woman who became known as the Wicked Witch of the West.
The hardest part of reading Wicked is knowing how it is going to end. From the start, you know that Elphaba is doomed; that she will die at Dorothy's hand, and nothing will change that. Still, even knowing this, you find yourself hoping against hope that Maguire will change the story and find a loophole for Elphaba, that she won't truly die, but live on, fighting the corrupt Wizard and everything he has created.
::: This Isn't Broadway :::
For those introduced to the softer side of Elphaba through the Broadway show of the same name, the novel will probably be a huge surprise. "Based on" is the operative phrase in the description of the musical, which has a far simpler plot than the novel. It would have been impossible to condense all the political intrigue and vast cast of characters in the novel into a musical, and many of the plot devices were oversimplified, including the love affair between Elphaba and Fiyero. The Boq of the novel is, in fact, a Munchinlander who had a crush on Galinda/Glinda, but he plays a far more important role in helping Elphaba in her research for Doctor Dillamond, and later, in helping Dorothy. While I love the show, the book has a much greater depth than the musical, and requires more of the reader than the audience member.
Wicked is one of the best novels I've read in a long, long time. I find myself reading it over again, still hoping that Elphaba can be saved, and still getting lost in the world of Oz as Maguire sees it. This is a book not to be missed, and I guarantee that you'll never view blue gingham and ruby slippers the same way again.