Wow. This book is unique, and I know I’m going to bungle my review completely, because the book’s complexity is impossible to express in a few paragraphs (and after only one reading) — especially without giving away the plot. As you probably already know, Maguire takes the Wicked Witch of the West (from The Wizard of Oz) and gives her a complete back-story — the book covers her life from birth to death, creating a complex character and detailed setting. This is not the fairy-tale Oz of the original story; rather, it is a very contemporary land torn by political conflict, in which the Wizard is an evil yet suave dictator who takes away the rights of talking Animals (who are, it seems, inherently equal to humans in this world) and the Wicked Witch of the East a revolutionary who opposes him for her own ends. Elphaba, the green-skinned so-called Wicked Witch of the West, is a political activist who becomes involved in underground seditious operations, and Glinda the Good Witch of the North is her college roommate. Oz is lively, engaging, and colorful, and is often portrayed in a cynically satirical light. Even to make such statements as these, however, is vastly to simplify the many-layered plot, which defies easy summary.
And the book is much more than a political tale. It is also an exploration of the concept of evil — its nature, its source, its moral value, its end. Elphaba is a principled, dedicated person who stands up for what she believes, and is willing to sacrifice anything for her cause…with no special thought for moral value outside of that cause. She is cynical and hardened but still human; she is both supremely selfish and desperately selfless. When does Elphaba become wicked? Does she really? Is the source of her ‘evil’ her parentage? Her birthplace? Her unusual skin color and consequent ill-treatment and isolation? Her upbringing, raised by parents who favored her siblings? Her personality? Her personal decisions? Her relationships? The interaction between any number of the above?
What is evil anyway?
Maguire doesn’t offer many answers, but the way in which he asks the questions is guaranteed to make you think, even if you don’t agree with the conclusions he does come to (I don’t tend to). He asks them both explicitly through his characters and implicitly through the action of the novel. And he doesn’t stop there. He also asks questions about destiny versus choice, the existence and nature of the human soul, the effect of religion on human lives, the nature of forgiveness — oh, just about everything. And he manages to do this in a 400-page novel that is also interesting and entertaining. Quite the achievement.
When he does offer answers to these central questions, Maguire tends to end in an anti-Christian position. There are three religions in Oz — the old paganism (Lurlinism), the less-old unionism (which has all the trappings and moral teachings of Christianity), and the new ‘pleasure faith’ (just guess). Elphaba’s father is a unionist pastor, a good person whose inability to convince his congregations to act morally results in self-blame and pathetic weakness. (Unionism — clearly referencing Christianity — comes up for some rather rough satire throughout the book.) Elphaba claims atheism, though if anything she seems to lean toward belief in the goddess Lurline; she insists multiple times that she doesn’t have a soul (but the reader wonders). The author’s conclusion as to religion seems to be that it is false in general (and Christianity is mockable), but produces better people than no religion at all: “If you could take [out] the skewers of religion, those that riddle your frame . . . could you even stand? . . . The history of peoples who have shucked off religion isn’t an especially persuasive argument for living without it. Is religion itself — that tired and ironic phrase — the necessary evil?” Except, that is, when it doesn’t — Elphaba’s sister Nessarose is deeply religious, and she turns out to be a nasty tyrant. Because of the philosophical nature of the book, these statements and ideas are more significant morally than they might be if they weren’t so central. Still, they don’t eliminate the value of the book as a sincere philosophical exploration of ideas.
Contrary to my expectations given the subject matter (and reviewer quotes, which tend to say that the book redefines good and evil), the author does not offer a standard of right and wrong, with the exception of social justice, which, it seems, is Right. We are left to judge for ourselves whether Elphaba’s many ambiguous actions are Right or Wrong — and whether she is culpable for them. Even several key plot points are left vague or not fully resolved — not in the begging-for-a-sequel way, but in a way that emphasizes the book’s tone and theme of questioning accepted norms.
But did I mention that the book is astoundingly well-written? Maguire’s prose is scintillating and evocative, immediate and colorful — in a word, gorgeous. He can be funny, tragic, cynical, perplexing, thrilling — and he does it all with literary grace. Literarily, the book is a page-turning joy, plain and simple.
Content warning: The back of my copy of this book compares it to Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit. This comparison surprises me considerably, since those books are both generally considered children’s classics, and this one is definitely NOT for kids, in spite of the source material. It contains multiple sex scenes (all of them adulterous, too), as well as a lot of sexual connotations and allusions scattered throughout, including implications (some of them strong) of deviant sexual behavior. (In general, the adulterous relationships are viewed as fulfilling and positive.) In addition to this abundance of R-rated content, there is a lot of bad language, including several f-words. In other words: ignore the back cover; this book is for adults only.
(Side note: For those who may care to know, the recent hit musical “Wicked” — responsible for the sudden popularity of this novel — modifies the book quite a lot. It is PG-rated and avoids the moral and plot ambiguities of the book, making for an enjoyable, simpler story, one that can appeal to a wider audience than can the book.)