Wicked, by Gregory Maguire

Four stars, read in 2010.

This book was a huge surprise to me.

To begin with, I did not want to read it. I’ve still never seen the musical—although with the benefit of several years’ distance, I now think it’s likely that I’d enjoy it—but I worked in a movie theater when it first came out, and having to hear “Popular” on Movie Tunes over and over while cleaning theaters was maybe not the best first exposure I could have had. But my sister told me I should try it, and since I did have a category for recommended books in my 10/10/10 challenge, I decided I would check it out.

The first fifty pages or so were not promising. My impression was that Gregory Maguire is weird, vulgar, and slightly pervy, and it looked like the story would be even stranger than I’d thought. (Those are the words of my pre-2012 self, and I consider her a gigantic prude, so there’s a good chance if I read it now this section wouldn’t bother me.) But I kept reading, and in the second section of the book I found my interest growing.

Elphaba—the Wicked Witch of the West—is an amazing character, and in fact is one of the least “wicked” people in the whole story. She’s cared for her younger, crippled sister since her sister was born, and as a teenager she fights a campaign to stop the discrimination against Animals (sentient, talking beasts who are seen as the lowest class of society. Under the Wizard’s tyrannical rule, the rights of Animals are being slowly taken away in an attempt to relegate them back to the status of animals—lower case a—and remove them from society).

There is significantly more depth to the story than there is to The Wizard of Oz (the movie; I’ve never read the book). In appearance, the cultures of Oz are strange and fanciful: miniature Munchkinlanders, orange Quadlings, talking Animals, Arjikis with blue diamonds on their skin. They have tiktok robotic creatures and magic and sorcery. But underneath those things, the people of Oz are no different from people in our world—which may be why this story is a tragedy.

Elphaba is strong, sarcastic, passionate, and a teensy bit macabre. I love her character, especially compared with the others—Glinda is vapid, conceited, and willingly shallow, and Nessarose (Elphaba’s sister, the eventual Wicked Witch of the East) is demanding and judgmental. The tragedy of the story is that Elphaba is actually a wonderful person whose life is bitter and massively misunderstood. A really fascinating approach to the old story.

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