Monday, March 11, 2013

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire (novel)

When I stumbled across a copy of Out of Oz and saw it called the fourth and final book of Gregory Maguires The Wicked Years series, I was motivated to read Son of a Witch and A Lion Among Men. As you'll see in my reviews of Son and Lion, I was unclear on how to evaluate them. As standalone novels, they were not particularly impressive. But if taken together as book two of a trilogy that began with Wicked and concludes with Out of Oz, their flaws might actually be virtues. Until reading Out of Oz, I just can't tell.

I first read Wicked before there was any hint of a series, and I loved it. I also swore that I'd never read it again. But when reading Son and Lion, it was pretty clear there were plot points and nuances referring back to Wicked that needed to be understood to fully appreciate those two and Out of Oz. So with some trepidation, I decided to re-read Wicked.

At this point it's almost impossible for anyone to have not at least heard of this book and have a sense of what it's about. But in case you haven't . . . here's a mostly spoiler-free description.

This is what the subtitle proclaims, a biography of Elphaba Thropp, better known as the Wicked Witch of the West. But it's not the Witch you know from the Oz books or the film, and it's not even the Oz you know. Maguire keeps the broad outline the same, but overall this is a dark story set in a dark Oz.

Elphaba, born with green skin and sharp teeth, grows up largely alone except for her younger sister and her parents. They send her off to college (there are colleges in Oz? Yes indeed) where chance pairs her with Galinda Arguenna. Yes, the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch of the South were roommates in college. Who'd have thought it? In college, Elphaba is radicalized by the increasing oppression of the talking Animals, and ultimately becomes a revolutionary and a terrorist. But all her efforts lead to more harm than good, with Elphaba having an amazing talent for doing things at the perfect time for them to explode in her face. She attempts to withdraw from the fray, but always gets sucked back in when it's too late to do good but not too late to make the situation worse. The end is inevitable, the only question is how she'll get there. Maguire makes that journey a fascinating ride. It's an Oz that's much more nuanced and dangerous than the original, but one that on the whole is far more realistic.

It's a brilliant, brilliant book. It's also an unrelenting and depressing tragedy. No-one comes out better than they went in, only a few manage to hold their ground. Most are ground down, humiliated, and ultimately broken. The lucky are dead, the unlucky are cast aside to live with their fates. The most tragic of them is Elphaba herself, whose attempts to do well fail in a manner that results in her becoming almost everything she's striven against. In short, it ends with no hope, no forgiveness, and no redemption.

By contrast, Son and Lion (for all their flaws) seem to offer a chance that things are turning around. While reading them it was clear there were nuances I'd forgotten from Wicked, and I wanted to approach Out of Oz ready to pick up on them.  The re-read did indeed freshen those nuances; there are parts of both that are now more significant - or at least less mysterious. Nonetheless, Wicked itself remains unrelenting tragedy. Next up: Out of Oz. Wish me luck.

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