“Wicked” by Gregory Maguire


For years, I snobbishly dismissed Wicked by Gregory Maguire and the musical it spawned as populist tripe. Fun for the masses, but not for me.

I can be such a snobby cuss, sometimes, no? Put me in mind of that lovely quote by William Paley:

There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all argument, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance. This principle is, contempt prior to examination.

so when one of my smartest friends posted a glowing review of Wicked the book on Goodreads, noting that it was her THIRD read (important not just for 3rd read denoting a better knowledge of the book, but how many books do we readers honor by reading 3 times?), my interest was piqued, I questioned my prejudice and resolved to read it myself.

The time was right recently, when the touring company of Wicked came to town. I got tickets with a girlfriend,and sat down to read the book. It is not an easy read, but I found it a challenging and rewarding one.

You probably “know” the broad outlines, as I thought I did, given the popularity of the musical. It is a re-telling of the Oz story focusing on the witches showing a less sympathetic side of Glinda the Good, and a more sympathetic side to the Wicked Witch, named Elphaba, pronounced EL fuh buh, in homage to Oz’s creator L. Frank Baum.

This is a fair summation of the musical but it does faint justice to the book, which is complicated, going way beyond in depth and breadth Good vs. Evil, and which witch embodies which. Maguire’s book provides the history, childhoods, and influences of Glinda, Elphaba, and many more characters who orbit around the original Oz fable and movie. There are competing religions and traditions in Oz including a variation on Christianity, as well as echoes of an older, darker tradition reminiscent of ancient, matriarchal ones that predate Christianity. There are talking Animals who are persecuted, sentient mechanical beings, a recurring mother/crone figure, and so many more elements. Throughout, though, is the question of Good and Evil, which Maguire presents as tantalizingly ambiguous.

People who claim that they’re evil are usually no worse than the rest of us… It’s people who claim that they’re good, or any way better than the rest of us, that you have to be wary of.

The heady mix of themes includes also wind as a signifier of power, and the nature of forgiveness.But it’s complex stew of themes that is, perhaps the book’s greatest weakness and, I suspect, why so many readers dislike it, shown by 3 stars on good reads with many negative reviews. The plot is loose, and wanders. Maguire raises many questions, but answers few definitively. This can be read as challenging the reader and trusting in their ability to think, but it can also be an author not quite in control of his creation. And near the end, when the traditional Oz tail dovetails most with Maguire’s re-telling, it felt like Maguire was hampered by fitting his tale to the other.

I can see why those who liked the musical (which is great fun, and offers some complication of the Oz story just not as much as the book. FYI, it’s adapted by Winnie Holtzman, who also wrote My So-Called Life.) would read the book and dislike it. It’s far less tidy and satisfying than the musical, which demands not nearly so much of its audience. But for its weaknesses of plot and sometimes over-mysterious backstory, this book has made me think, actively, on power, religion, good, morality and so many BIG things, that I highly recommend it, as long as you know you’re in for a challenging ride.

3 Responses to ““Wicked” by Gregory Maguire”

  1. Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) Says:

    Interesting. I received this book in a Christmas bookswap a few years back and put it aside for much the same reasons you initially did. I just figured it really wouldn’t be my thing, especially since I’ve never read FLB’s original books nor have I seen the musical. Do you think one’s reading of this would be hampered if your only knowledge of the Oz-verse is from the film (Garland version, not the recent Franco one)?

  2. Sally Says:

    So I confess I loved this book! I also love the musical but luckily read the book some time before seeing the musical. I can see why the book might disappoint people who are drawn to the musical. Yes it does give you lots to think about. But I also found it an exciting read and I like it’s originality. Thanks for the balanced review!

  3. girldetective Says:

    Sally, perhaps my summary made it sound like I appreciated the book less than I did. I liked it a lot, but took some time to ruminate on why it had such a relatively low rating on goodreads. Steph, the only background I had was the movie and the mentions of Oz in the Fables comic-book series. I’ve never (yet) read the LFB books, though I’m trying to get the boys to listen to one on CD that has Paul Rudd narrating a part of it. I think it presumes awareness of the movie, but doesn’t at all need knowledge of the source material.