Gregory Maguire’s novel transforms the world of Oz, expanding on Baum’s original works and most importantly, telling the story of the Wicked Witch of the West. In Elphaba (later to be known as the Wicked Witch of the West), we have a classic outsider. Her green color and manner set her apart, but so does her upbringing. As she grows up, her political activism again separates her and makes her a target. She is told she is cursed, and despite her brilliant mind, and deep passion for protecting those oppressed, she believes this to be true.
Maguire’s Oz is stranger and more adult than Baum’s, the classic movie, or the musical The Wiz. If you’ve seen the Broadway musical Wicked, based on this book, you have a tiny sense of Maguire’s world — but the play only covers a small portion of the book and changes significant aspects.
But Wicked is no children’s tale, no story to entertain while telling a nice morality tale with clean cut lessons and nice neat good and evil dichotomies. Instead, we face questions of race, genocide, religious zealotry, and war. But there is also self-discovery and heroics. There is sex and adultery, but also love and sacrifice. The problem is, as I reader I found it difficult to connect as it seemed everything was given equal weight.
Maguire builds his world around the lesser people of Oz. We learn of the Munchinlanders and those in the Vinkus, and Animals the sentient relatives of the animals. We learn more about what people call Glinda, Nessa-Rose, and Elphaba, but not much about what those labels mean to them, or even if it expresses something true about them. Dorothy doesn’t show until the end of the tale, but even there, Maguire creates an interesting description but doesn’t delve very deep. All the characters are needy, albeit in different ways, and yet, none obtain what they seek. In fact, tragedy abounds in this violent world where a wizard seeks power through subjugation and vilifies those who oppose him.
We learn of Elphaba, and by extension, Oz more through others than through Elphaba herself. The narration is omniscient though often filtered through others. Even in the chapters that let us inside Elphaba’s head, we are still kept at a distance.
In the end, Maguire left me wondering if he meant us to believe in fate or that our self-image affects our choices and what happens in our lives, and if we are what others label us, or what we label ourselves. I empathized with Fiyero, Elphaba, and to a lesser extent Nessarose, Sarima, and Liir. But despite the empathy, I never connected to the characters on a deeper level. Throughout, I felt I was being told a tale instead of immersed in the world. This distance wasn’t from lack of world-building but in a flaw in Maguire’s narrative style choice. Maguire played The Wizard as the big bad of the story, but again, I felt no repulsion or deep dislike of him because we see little of him — just told about his policies and the results. His narration is indirect, yet the suspense remained low, with the exception of a few moments. Wicked spans a considerable timeframe forcing a relatively episodic approach where large jumps in time occur and we are filled in as needed.
Wicked is creative but falls short of the potential of the setup. The story is, in many ways, brilliant, but the narrative fails to follow-through on that brilliance, leaving us with a great idea that is not well executed. For those who love reworked fairytales with plot and world-building over deep connections with characters, you may enjoy this more than I did.
For my reading stats on this novel, check out Reading Stats: Wicked