Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

Rating: +

Gregory Maguire

I have a soft spot in my heart for The Wizard of Oz, one of my few significant acting performances being in this play as the Wicked Witch of the West. So the idea of a book written from the Witch's perspective was very appealing to me, and I think it enhanced my enjoyment beyond what the book really merited, because I like this book a lot and give it a '+', though I admit that is a relatively fluffy piece of writing.

Very little of the book actually covers the plot as you know it from either the book or the movie The Wizard of Oz (and Wicked borrows from both). The book begins when the Witch's mother is pregnant with her, and spends much of the book showing how the Witch (named Elphaba) grew up and went to school.

One's expectation with this book would be that we would come to understand Elphaba and see why she behaves in ways that, when seen from Dorothy's point of view look evil. And the book certainly sets itself up as an exploration of what it means for something to be evil, or if that is even a meaningful concept to apply to people. But it doesn't really end up following through. We see some key points in Elphaba's development (though other key events happen "off screen" and are never satisfactorily explained) but we never see why she does things. We are left to guess at her motives.

I also found it quite troublesome that, in a book that would seem to be violating the motif of a story where "pure evil" is a foil against the hero, Elphaba is absolved from being an evil person, but that duty is passed on to others. I finished the book feeling that we were left wondering what the book written from the new heart of evil would reveal. While I could imagine a book using this technique purposefully to create the notion of an infinite hierarchy of evils to be unwrapped, Wicked didn't seem to be pointing in that direction.

On the positive side, I really enjoyed reading about Elphaba's exploits in school. Her relationships with animals were touching, and gave us our few glimpses of her character. I thought her struggle to learn magic was entertaining as well. So long as one takes this as a fun story and doesn't expect any revelations, I think this is a fun book to read with just enough creative ideas in it to warrant a '+'.

As a final note, many of the amazon.com reviews complain about this book being sexually explicit, to the degree of being disturbing. I can only think of one scene that could be in the least bothersome, and even that is relatively tame. This is certainly not a children's book - it is not meant for the same audience as the Wizard of Oz series (though those are pretty disturbing as well). But I didn't find anything in them that would be traumatic for an adult to read.


Review written November 1999.


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