January 29, 2016

Wicked, by Gregory Maguire

1.5 stars: There were parts I found interesting and thought-provoking, but I had a hard time wading through all the sex scenes and bad language.

I picked this one up, mostly because I had heard so many people rave happily about the Broadway musical. I should have read reviews for the book! All I can say is, the play must not be anything like the book if so many people like it.

As the cover says, this is the whole Oz story from the point of view of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. She is born to a morally loose mother and a religious fanatic father. 

From the time she is a tiny baby, her skin is green, and as a squalling newborn she bites off the finger of one of the midwives from the village. (Her second set of teeth are a bit more normal.)

Time goes on; Elphaba grows up and goes to school. She ends up rooming with a pretty, popular girl named Glinda, who--though ashamed to admit it--actually takes an interest in Elphaba. The two become friends...of a sort. Elphaba is highly intelligent, and constantly questioning status quo. However, she is also quite shy, largely due to growing up looking so different, and all the issues surrounding that.

Eventually, Elphaba's armless (due to a birth defect) younger sister, Nessarose, also comes to the boarding school, and Elphaba has to take care of her as well. Meanwhile, all is not well in Oz. Oz himself is a ruthless dictator who rules with the help of many soldiers and a merciless team of assassins known as the Gale force. He suppresses rights for the Animals (sentient, speaking animals), until they are rounded up and put back on farms like their non-sentient cousins.

After a disastrous trip to speak with Oz, Elphaba drops out of school and joins up with a rebel group of dubious intent. She has an affair with a married former classmate. Things go very badly in all aspects of her life, and she ends up in a kind of nunnery for several years, finally making her way to the family of her lover in order to attempt some amends. She brings along a boy who may or may not be her son, Liir, and hopes for the best.

It keeps going. Suffice it to say, Dorothy enters the story toward the end, almost as an afterthought. It's Elphaba's sister, Nessarose aka "the Wicked Witch of the East," who dies with Dorothy's landing in Oz. And then there's the shoes. Elphaba REALLY wants those shoes! Glinda had no right to give them away to Dorothy! (After everything else we've been led to believe about Elphaba, this seemed very out-of-character.) Elphaba meets her end much like she does in the original, but this time we see the misunderstandings that led up to that point.

I'm usually onboard with fairy tale retellings. I was intrigued to get the back story of the Wicked Witch of the West. Maguire does a good job of making her a mostly sympathetic character. The world of Oz that Maguire creates matches up closely enough with Baum's vision that it works, though this is obviously a much darker, grittier world.

The religious aspect of the book was quite complex and well-done. Several of the main characters held very different religious beliefs, from the pleasure religion to some that worshipped the fairy Lurlene, and others. I think there's a lot of people today who believe in the "pleasure religion," whether they acknowledge it openly or not.

Also, there is a very interesting discussion in the middle about the nature or evil. What makes someone evil? Is it fate, ends, means to those ends, green skin, bad parentage?  If I could take only that part out of the book and use it for a book club discussion, I would do it.

However. I could not in good conscience recommend this book to my book club--or to anyone, really. Content-wise, it's a bust. Quite a bit of language, plus many sexual encounters--Elphaba's mom, Elphaba's affair, and others. If you decide to read it despite this review, skip over the entire section when the friends go to the Philosopher's Club. I wish I had. Yuck.

Yes, I do find it ironic, after my last post, that this is the book I had to review next. It was perilously close to being a "lake of mud" book, with too many content issues to finish. What kept me reading on this one?
1. I wanted to find out what happened to Elphaba, and get to the bottom of how it would all tie-in with Baum's original.
2. The philosophical questions it raised kept me thinking.

To be honest, though, I'm not sure it was worth it.

Have you seen the play? Do you recommend it?


  1. Honestly, I've heard only negative things about the book. But I have seen the play (twice) and it is AMAZING, and my five year old is addicted to the music. I think many people have fallen into the same trap as you where they read the book based on the reviews of the play and they're sorely disappointed.

    1. Okay, maybe I'll leave the play on my bucket list! I was feeling a bit reluctant, after that book.

  2. Haha, yes, you should've read the reviews first. I have no intention of ever reading the book, but yes, the play is amazing. The mom's affair happens in the play, but it's brief and pretty glossed over (nothing graphic). And I'm pretty sure the other scenes you mention are cut entirely. I wouldn't say the play is morally squeaky clean (it does explore complex issues, I think most of the philosophical questions are still there), but it is completely delightful. You should definitely see it if you get the chance.

    1. I guess it's one of those rare instances where the book is NOT better! I will have to see the play sometime.