Thursday, January 19, 2012

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

*Trumpets sound, angels sing."

I loved it. Loved, loved, loved. And not like "love that goes away because it's really just a passing infatuation." OHHHH NO, this is real love. Real bookish, all-time favorite, gooey love.

Now let me try my best to explain because I want there to be some logic behind this lovefest and not just a gushy mess.

I only sort of knew what to expect when I picked up Gregory Maguire's Wicked. Having read Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, and having NOT fallen in love with that one, I thought I might pick this book up, read through a bit, and then set it aside. I am thrilled to be wrong.

Elphaba, the eventual Wicked Witch of the West, is born to a minister father and a tart of a mother. She's green, she has pointy teeth and odd eyes, and her mother doesn't really bond with her. She spends her childhood with her missionary family in an unsavory part of Oz called Quadling country and is nearly uncontrollable until her younger siblings come along. As she grows, it's evident that she's not as odd as her parents originally feared, and she's a smart little whipper snapper. She attends Shiz University with Galinda (later Glinda) and a cast of other pivotal characters, and her life unfurls into an adventure as she eventually becomes involved in political workings and endures heartache and failure throughout her life until the unavoidable ending we know awaits her.

I did not expect an epic, and that's what this book feels like. From Elphaba's birth to death, we have a peek into her best and worst moments, and rarely have I met such a sympathetic character. Is she all sunshine and light? OH no. She's smart, intuitive, moral, and conflicted. She is sensual but also practical to a fault. She might be me. If I were green. Maybe.

Aside from loving Elphaba herself, I really enjoyed Maguire's narrative on several levels. First off, there is an obvious fantasy element here -- this is Oz, after all -- but there's also a distinctly historical feeling to this book. At times I felt like I was living in Victorian England, at times Nazi Germany, and even Nixon-era America. The various regions of Oz were colorful and unique, and I enjoyed getting to know them through Elphaba's travels and their representative characters.

This book also critiques and satirizes some big, honkin' issues. Maguire explores the nature of evil, implications of religion, human rights, revolution. I was genuinely surprised and delighted by how political in nature this book became at times. I was most compelled when Elphaba was embroiled in some plot or other and impassioned by the dwindling rights and oppression of Animals (animals with a human capacity for intelligence, thought, and communication). It was easy to see how she started strong and almost naively passionate about issues in her college years, but withered and became embittered with time. Though, I have to say, she was never as bitter and never wicked as one might associate with the book or film version.

I suppose I also had my doubts coming into this book because I have no particular fondness for The Wizard of Oz. I disliked Baum's novel, though I appreciate it and have used it in my college classroom. I am fond of the movie, but not fanatical by any stretch. I enjoyed Wicked in a similar way to Bill Willingham's Fables series. The characters are recognizable because they are figureheads in our pop culture. They are archetypes. Almost everyone knows them, but Maguire tells the backstory. The whole story. It's a very smart takeoff from what we think we know about these characters. He crushes the stereotypes while still leaving some nugget of the character in tact for the sake of familiarity. He grows the story; he does not just retell it.

Wicked is a world of it's own with rich characters, settings, and a twisted plot. It's humorous and horrific by turns. It's political and silly and passionate. It is the best of what I look for in a book -- an intricate plot and well-fleshed characters and a huge emotional investment. For these reasons and more, it's going on my all-time favorites list. Having read some reviews, it seems that this novel is quite polarizing, but that's another sign that a novel is worth risking. It can be a payoff or end up in pissed off, but it's most definitely worth a go.

Snuggle (with big, sloppy kisses) -- Skewer

Pub. Date: September 1995
Publisher: HarperCollins
Format: e-book
ISBN-13:  9780060987107 
Source: Purchased by me.

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