In January, my book club read Wicked by Gregory Maguire. Funnily enough, this was my second time reading it for a book club. My high school book club read it too–although I think if the teacher had read it beforehand, we wouldn’t have. To settle one question right away, this is not a young adult book–don’t let the picture of the witch or the Oz connection fool you.
Wicked tells the backstory of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. If you think you know about the book because you’ve seen the musical, trust me, you don’t. The two are really only similar in very broad strokes. Elphaba is a girl who was born with green skin, to the consternation of her family. In college, she finds herself rooming with Glinda, a bubbly society queen. After initial dislike, the two form an unlikely friendship. Later on as adults, they both end up using magic in positions of power over sectors of Oz…and one day a girl named Dorothy falls out of the sky to impact both their lives.
The musical tells the story above. The book does too…but it takes some 500 pages about it, and crams a whole lot more in. As you may guess already, I had troubles with this book. I feel a little more on uncertain ground when I criticize a book that is clearly very popular, so let me preface it this way–these were my problems with the book. If someone else found it brilliant, insightful and life-changing, I accept your opinion. But this is how it came off to me.
Part of the problem was in the characters, which may come down to point of view. It’s hundreds of pages before we actually get into Elphaba’s point of view. Maguire has a disconcerting habit of spending 90 pages from the POV of a particular character, only to then have them completely or nearly disappear from the story as soon as their section is done. Result: even though this is the backstory of the Wicked Witch, it still felt hard to get any sense of her character, of her motivations, of her hopes, dreams and desires…and so on. For me, the musical does it all in two songs: “The Wizard and I” and “Defying Gravity.” The book is 500 pages and doesn’t do it as well. (And also, I don’t think the book-Elphaba would sing either of those songs.)
Another problem is focus. Part of our book club discussion (in January, not in high school) was about what Maguire’s purpose was in the book. It really seems to not be the characters at all. In many ways he seems far more interested in examining the meaning of good and evil, and the politics of life in Oz–the conflicting religions, the issues of Animal rights (not the same as animal rights), the folklore of history and the questionable rule of the Wizard. All of these are perfectly good elements…but leave something to be desired as the primary focus of a very long book. It ended up feeling scattered to me, with too many plot threads and minor characters, interwoven with politics and philosophy.
Maguire was clever in some of the ways he built off of Oz–the green skin, the aversion to water, the talking animals and the tiktok creatures. Some of it is from the movie, some of it is from the book series, and some of it really is clever. Some of it is also drawn from the real world and brings the book into a position of satire–which is some of that endless politics and philosophy, but some of it is fine.
And then there were parts that just seemed to be shock value, bringing me to another problem. This isn’t young adult partially for the philosophy but mostly because Maguire at times seemed to decide to be vulgar just for the sake of being vulgar. I really think the point was just to say, “this isn’t the Oz you think you know.” An adult Oz is fine–but gratuitous vulgarity is still gratuitous vulgarity, and there have to be better ways to say that this isn’t the land of sweetness and light that L. Frank Baum wrote about. Just like kids books can delve into deep issues, you can tell an adult story without making it inappropriate for kids.
The remaining big issue I have with the book vs. the musical is the relationship between Elphaba and Glinda. In the musical, they clearly are for each other that one best friend who forever changed them, and even if they haven’t seen each other in years they still have a bond. In the book, they’re both part of the same circle of friends, fond of each other but not in a soul-altering way, and years later they’re just a couple of former friends who had lost touch.
The musical narrows the story’s focus, concentrates on just a few characters and deepens their portrayals and their relationships with each other. The book is scattered all over the place, and while it has deep examinations of the meaning of evil and of Ozian politics, it doesn’t get very far with any characters. I still don’t feel like I fully understand the Wicked Witch’s motivations. At the end, Maguire pulls the “and then she goes crazy” card, and her final confrontation with Dorothy is just a confused semi-farce.
It’s too bad, really, because I LOVE the idea of telling the life story of the Wicked Witch of the West. I know the book is wildly popular, but I still feel it falls short of what might have been. I have no idea how anyone ever looked at the novel and thought it could be a musical, but I’m glad they did–because that’s the better place to go if you want the story of what happened before Dorothy got to Oz.