Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Book Review: Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire

Since the Glee episode containing "Defying Gravity" I've become a fan of the Wicked soundtrack (one of my favorites to sing in the shower)  and have made plans (hopefully) to go see the musical - but somehow missed that the musical was based on a pre-existing novel - not directly from Frank Balm's perennial classic "Wizard of Oz". So when in the course of conversation I became aware of Gregory Maguire's "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West" I HAD to download it for my next few road-trips (and at over 19 hours it did take a couple of weeks and a couple of roadtrips to complete).

I started this book with certain expectations - primarily to fall into the story immediately, to be at home and to be comfortable with the characters. I was surprised that I wasn't immediately enveloped in the story. There's a slow start and build-up to the meat of the story. There was a lot of back story to get through.

The story does stand on it's own as do the characters - Wicked is not simply the Wizard of Oz told from another point of view - there are characters in common: Elpheba, Gilinda, The Wizard and of course Dorothy -but the plot and story line are entirely unique. Wicked neither complimented "Wizard of Oz" nor detracted from it. The reader (listener) should not expect to follow the storyline of Balm's work - nor should they have any expectations of who the characters are (or aren't) based on the classic.

 I've seen the Wizard of Oz movie perhaps 200 times (it's one of my all-time favorites) and have always viewed the wizard as a benevolent (albeit confused) man who just so happened to drift into Oz and the Emerald City, not as a dictator with aspirations to exterminate entire races to instill himself as emperor. I was not conditioned to view Elpheba (the wicked witch) as a woman - a mortal with human faults and conditions - loving, living - a political statement in defence of the Animals. Glinda as an upwardly aspired socialite looking for the proper husband during her time at University.

The story does talk about Animals and animals - this is initially confusing when listening to the story as the narrator does not distinguish between Animal and animal. Is this lion an animal or an animal? Like the old song about potatoes and tomatoes from a literal sense the words are pronounced and spelled the same. Animals (capital A) are beasts with a soul - Dr Dillymond (a goat) the life sciences professor at Shiz, cows that talk and mourn the loss of their children as veal. This contrasts with "animals" (no capitalization) that are the beasts we know from this realm. What makes an animal an Animal? How does an animal mother bear an Animal offspring? The Emperor Wizard is adamantly against Animals and works to remove their place in society it is on this point that the Wizard and Elpheba are initially pitted against each other.

Overall this was a good listen - it was entertaining and it was unexpected. I did not expect to be sympathetic to poor old green "Elphie" and I did not expect to root against Dorothy (and poor ugly yappy Toto). If you have seen the musical there is content from the book (a lot of it) that is not included in the musical - details that spin the court of opinion. There are other books in the Wicked series (the next one is "Son of a Witch") and I'm going to work my way to those eventually. My current listen is "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" by Stieg Larsson (and at 17 hours I've got some time before I circle back to the Wicked series).

"Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West" was written by Gregory Maguire and narrated by John McDonough. The original novel was published on January 1st, 1995, Audio copyright is by Recorded Books release date November 16th, 2005. The unabridged version runs 19 hours 30 minutes.

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