I revisited this one because it’s been quite a long time since I read it. I remember sincerely loving the book, and marveling at the darkness with which Maguire writes. By the way, how gorgeous is this cover? Mine doesn’t look that good. Mine looks like this:
Anyway, I don’t know how many people have read this novel, since it’s been out for years. For those who haven’t, it tells the story of Elphaba, who is more familiar to fans of The Wizard of Oz under her identity of the Wicked Witch of the West (which I will now refer to as WWW). In this first novel of Maguire’s, he gives the reader the backstory of the WWW, from her humble beginnings in the country of Munchkinland to her college years at Shiz to her rebellious youth in the Emerald City. From the novel, the reader learns that Elphaba, or WWW, is not the evil villain we love to hate. She has been misunderstood her whole life, ostracized because of her green skin, and villainized because she disagrees vocally with the Wizard’s politics. By the time she meets Dorothy (in part four of the novel), she is middle-aged and beaten down, having suffered a lifetime of loss after loss.
I remembered virtually nothing about this novel. In my mind it got confused with the musical, which I’ve seen twice.
Because I’d forgotten the novel, I was amazed by how different the two stories are. For one thing, the musical is optimistic. It is the touching tale of two friends that somehow manage to overcome obstacles to their friendship and also make changes for the good of Oz. The novel, conversely, is not. For one thing, Elphaba and Glinda do not stay friends the way they do in the musical. There is a massive cast of characters that pass through Elphaba’s life, but their presence is always fleeting. Maguire’s novel is also a lot more political. There is the Wizard, who blew into Oz in a hot air balloon and deposed the reigning child queen, and who oppresses the people of Oz indiscriminately. Munchkins, Quadlings, Animals–all fall under the Wizard’s iron hand. There is a religious group that closely resembles Christians, known as the unionists, who worship the Unnamed God and attempt with futility to convert people away from the “pleasure faith.” In fact, Elphaba at one point joins a group that, if not extreme enough to merit the distinction of terrorists, come pretty darn close. No, it certainly isn’t the Wizard of Oz that we know at love from novel and film.
Part of me really didn’t like reading it this time. I still give it five stars, because it is masterfully written, is a great and engaging story, and is engrossingly creative. But there is a hopelessness that dominates the tone of the novel, and sometimes I wasn’t in the mood to pick up such a downer. The novel seems to hint that resistance to the status quo, to tyranny and oppression, and to evil itself, is a useless pursuit that should be abandoned so that one might have a happy life. Maybe this is mostly true, as it seems like one person has little power to make change, but I didn’t want to read about it in every word of the novel!
Still, as I said, it is a masterful work. Maguire has a very dry and sometimes offensive sense of humor, playing with things that one would not normally find amusing (for instance, senility in the elderly). His words are beautiful. It is a novel that is effortlessly thoughtful, which forces the reader to contemplate their own complacency. Maguire also creates wonderful characters. Elphaba is, despite being prickly and somber, a character that the reader can love, though it may stem from pity. She tries so hard to do the right thing, and it often goes wrong for her. She is going against the whole of Oz, and one cannot help but admire her courage. The other characters that come and go (Boq, Galinda, Fiyero, Sarima, Liir, Nessarose, and others) are, if not always fully rounded out, entertaining. They complement each other well, and yet, simply by existing, create conflict between each other. Their differing beliefs and ideals clash enough that very little outside strife would be necessary, though it often makes an appearance anyway.
I definitely think the novel has more value than the musical. Don’t get me wrong. The musical is great–beautiful costumes and sets, catchy and sometimes moving songs, and an entertaining plot line. But where the musical is fun, the novel is important. It is a witty, dry, and entertaining commentary on the world in which we live today. If you’re one of the last people in the world to read this novel, I recommend you get around to it soon!