Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Lisa's Take - Wicked (Gregory Maguire)

I'm just really not sure what to write for my review of Wicked. There are a couple of complications surrounding the book: first of all, I love the musical and it severely colors my perception of the book's events, and second of all Wicked is the first non-fantasy that I've read since 100 Years of Solitude, which I still have an outstanding review for because I'm having a hard time finishing it. I believe what the latter problem boils down to is this: I don't read enough literature to consider myself a qualified reviewer of it. Fantasy? I read nothing but, so I could wax poetic on it all day - go on and on about these approaches and those nuances and the other settings. Literature, less so.

So: forgive me if this review is littered with more ineptitude than I usually show.

Right, let's get this rolling the standard way. The full title of the book I'm reviewing does much to sum up the plot – Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. The story starts a little before Elfaba’s birth (Elfaba being the witch’s given name) and follows a number of points of view through the book. All in all, we get about a 40-year picture of the political turmoil in Oz.

At it’s heart, Wicked is a book about the study of Evil, or at least that’s what Maguire claims in his introduction, citing many long conversations with friends to let ideas mull. With that in mind, it’s no wonder that the book is pretty awful, depressing, and upsetting. Especially near the beginning, it’s like Maguire is trying to be as vile as possible in explaining the circumstances surrounding Elfie’s birth. I can see why he did it – the later juxtaposition of “a someone who comes from a rotten past, who everyone assumes is rotten at heart” with “a someone who’s really good at heart, in spite of herself and her upbringing,” is fairly poignant.

It seems like as the book goes on, Maguire gets more caught up in the story and feels less of a need to be repugnant; still, the rest of the story is by no means pretty, and is rife with injustice. Unfortunately, none of the characters had been developed in such a way that the injustices really twinged my heart-strings. You know how it is when you’re reading a book and your chest is tight and your teeth are clenched and you just wish you could yell at the character what they need to do to fix everything? Wicked never inspired that in me, and it should have. If something had been done right, it would have. I’m not sure what that something is… but, the book wanted for it.

Now, as I mentioned before, the book is so very far divergent from the musical – I don’t even know where to begin. The ties between the two only exist as the barest possible grains… names of characters, but not looks or personality or role, for instance. Some barest hints of themes, but without the same implications. Bits of plot misplaced in time and content. And of course the niggling detail that the musical is, at heart, a happy-ending story, while the book is meant to be as depressing and awful as you can conceive. When it comes down to it, I far prefer the musical, but honestly I’d rather just keep the two as separate, non-overlapping, unrelated stories in my head. They’re just too different to merit being called even siblings or cousins, much less the same story.

One last thing – I will say that reading Wicked has made me want to go back and read all of the original Oz books. I’d like to know how many ideas and back-stories Maguire pilfered from L. Frank Baum, and how he changed and morphed interpretations. I have a feeling that some of the conclusions and implications he created were absolutely masterful in their brilliance… but it’s hard to say without reading the original work.

The bottom line here? Again, I profess my suck-i-tude when it comes to reviewing Fine Literature, especially when it comes with so many related works and caveats. Part of me wants to say “if you like the musical, don’t read the book. You’ll hate it.” But part of me also wants to say “you might only appreciate this book if you’ve seen the musical.” In the end, I don’t think I can make a call. The book has merits, it’s well written and engaging – I certainly never got bored – but it’s some pretty rough subject matter. And I’m spent.


Albert Riehle said...

i don't think it was your lack of familiarity with fantasy or your love of the musical which clouded your opinions of this book, i think it was the fact that maguire simply didn't do a very good job.

i thought he did a sloppy job of tying it all together and by the end was more caught up in his dissertation on good and evil than he was with telling the story.

i was disapointed.

LisaBit said...

Huh, I think I could buy that argument. I hadn't quite stepped back far enough to distinguish the Good vs Evil agenda from the plot line. Not that it absolves my lack reviewing skills, but that's another can of worms ;P