I had heard enough ambivalent reviews of Wicked (1995) by Gregory Maguire that I had decided not to read it. After all, there were hundreds of other books clamoring for my attention, but I never quite forgot it. The idea sounded entertaining and witty, tons of people have read it, and now there's even a Tony-winning musical (that I'm sure I'll want to see someday); I figured that it couldn't be that bad. That, and it turned out my mom had a copy of it. I ignored the fact that she got bored and stopped reading halfway through, and took the appearance of the book as a sign that I should read it. And I was pleasantly surprised. Sure, there were moments that didn't resonate with me, but Maguire created a rich and imaginative world with a real, tragic heroine, while at the same time making funny, pointed commentary on our own world.
The evil, green antagonist that we knew of only as "The Wicked Witch of the West" from The Wizard of Oz was actually born, Elphaba, the eldest daughter of a minister in Munchkinland. There is much more to this girl and woman than a cackling hag terrifying poor Dorothy in the land of Oz. Elphaba is smart and determined, and is more motivated by the pursuit of equality and justice than anything else. After a childhood traipsing after her disappointed father in the boggy marshes of Quadling Country, she finds herself in the city, attending a college for women in the city of Shiz with her new roomy, the beautiful, ignorant, pretentious, country-girl Galinda. During her studies Elphaba befriends Galinda and gets caught up in the struggles of equal rights for Animals as the country disintegrates under the despotic reign of the Wizard of Oz. Elphaba's intentions are almost always good, but her hubris could also be her complete and total devotion to the ideas and people she cares about. In the end, we all know what her fate will be, and like any tragic story, the spiral downward feels inevitable.
The most enjoyable section of this book was definitely Part II that takes place in Gillikin when Elphaba goes abroad to school. This is where we are introduced to "Galinda of the Arduennas" as Elphaba's roommate. Galinda is a spoiled, ignorant, shallow, beautiful debutante from a small town in Gillikin. Having been a big fish in a small pond, she is more than out of her element when first arriving in college, but falls back on her beauty and natural air of superiority to push through. I haven't read a character so funny and irritating in a long time. Yet, she grows and learns in a believable way with Elphaba as her roommate. Elphaba, herself, is more likable and relatable than at any other point in the novel as the strong, willful loner, intent on learning and disdainful of other's opinions.
Maguire explores a number of themes throughout this novel that added some interesting layers, making this book much more than a simple fairytale. The idea of fate and evil are probably the two major ones: Although Elpaba is incredibly stubborn and independent, she doesn't even know if her actions stem from a spell cast on her or are of her own volition. In addition, Maguire's world includes drastic discrimination against Animals (animals who can talk and have the same intelligence and emotions as people), as well as discrimination against women, Munchkinlanders, and otheres, that clearly resonate with our own history.
The most memorable theme for me, though, was what might be best described as biases, assumptions, and appearances not being everything they seem. Maguire plays with this idea from the very beginning. The readers of the book have an idea of The Wicked Witch of the West from the movie, but when you look a little deeper, Maguire shows that there is so much that we did not know or did not understand about her. And that happens a lot in real life as we throw our judgment around. It's easy to slap the label of "evil" on someone and dismiss them (think of criminal trials), but it's much harder to truly understand them or feel sorry for them. It's also easier to slap the label of "evil" or "stupid" on people who disagree with you rather than addressing their concerns. Dorothy's view of Oz, when she arrives, (and the reader's perception of Oz that stems from the film) is also very skewed. Dorothy is thrown down in the middle of something akin to a civil war, but she blithely skips along the yellow-brick road, completely unaware of the complex realities of this new world and the dire consequences of her own actions--much like United States foreign policy in many cases throughout our history (or that's what it reminded me of anyway--especially with Dorothy being a well-meaning girl from Kansas).
There were times when the book got a little slow or I couldn't quite understand the characters' motivations. There are still some scenes that are just beyond me, but I enjoyed reading this book. I was impressed by Maguire's ability to create such an interesting and complex world, and he gives you a lot to think about.