Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

In Book Reviews on September 8, 2013 at 6:00 am


Harper Collins Publishers 1995

If I had to describe this book in one word, it would be this: Trippy.

I had so many conflicting feelings about it. And before you ask, no, I haven’t seen the play. Nor have I read The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.

I picked up this book because I think it’s interesting to see things from the villain’s point of view. I’m not actually sure what I was expecting when I started reading this, but it certainly wasn’t what I got.

There were times when I couldn’t figure out whether or not I liked this book. It left me feeling both frustrated and enchanted at the same time.

Nutshell blurb: The story follows the life of Elphaba, aka The Wicked Witch of the West, from her birth up until the point where Dorothy flings a bucket of water onto her.

So here are the things that I didn’t really like about it.

The first thing I didn’t like is that the beginning of the book is from the pov of her parents before our protagonist is born. And then we move on to her years as a toddler. I find this to be an exceptionally tedious device. I want to jump right in with the main character. I don’t mind a little bit of back story. She was born green and had pointy teeth. Her first word was “horrors”. That’s all very interesting, but I need to feel that a story is going somewhere. We spend almost a fifth of the book with her parents.

The second thing I didn’t like was that I didn’t feel much of a connection with any of the characters until really late in the story when I finally got a sense of who Elphaba really was. There were a few times when I questioned whether or not I wanted to finish reading it and a few times when I almost put it down.

The third thing I didn’t like is kind of an extension of the first. Remember when I said that I need to feel that a story is going somewhere? Once we reached the halfway point, I had some serious questions as to where the story was going. I don’t like it when stories are predictable, but I feel like there needs to be some goal that the main character is trying to reach. It was very frustrating to have no sense of what Elphaba was trying to accomplish at certain points in the book.

Now on to things that I liked about it.

It was an incredibly complex world with a lot of political intrigue. I mention this not because I’m particularly interested in political intrigue, but because the assumption might be that as this story is based on a well-loved children’s story, it might be light on the details. However, this world is vast and interesting with characters that aren’t fully good or fully evil.

Another thing I liked was that Elphaba really became human to me in the latter part of the book. She wasn’t evil, but she had a very strong sense of justice which made her do things that were evil. You could totally see why she did them though. She had a good heart but continually failed at things that she tried to accomplish which made it easy to relate to her. But then sometimes her motives were unknown and downright creepy. I mean, what would possess someone to sew wings onto monkeys?

One thing I’d like to point out is that it would be easy to think that it’s a YA book, but I think that it’s most certainly adult material as it’s got a bit of sex and a hint of bestiality in it. (Yes, it really does.) From what I’ve read of the reviews, a lot of people bought this book because they saw the play first. These are the people who seemed to be most disappointed with it.

I think that you’re going to have to make your own minds up about this one, my friends. I ended up giving it 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads just because it has baffled me so much. I waffle back and forth as to whether or not I liked it. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I finished it, so I’m leaning towards liking it. It’s not one I’ll read again, however.

Have you read this book? I would love to know what you thought about it.

  1. I’ve read it. I liked it, but then I kind of like rambling character-pieces that may or may not eventually get around to having a plot. Heh. I’ve also read the second book, Son of a Witch, which I also enjoyed. They’re not my favorite books — by a pretty large margin — but I did like the way they turned the story around and made it very much not about a hero-vs.-villain conflict.

    • I sometimes like stories that are portraits of characters as well, but I feel that the whole story should be that way. It seemed like we were on a path to somewhere after her university years, but then all of a sudden there was no hint of what what she was trying to achieve. I didn’t like the mixture of action vs long periods of nothing. I don’t mind reading a book that is a snapshot of someone’s life, but I need to know that that’s what I’m reading because I have to be in a certain mood to read it. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but I spent a lot of time wondering what the story was even about. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there didn’t feel like there was a natural progression towards anything. And then Dorothy showed up and it made sense again.

      I didn’t realise that there was a second book. I’m not sure if I’m interested in reading it. This one was definitely strange as sometimes I think that I liked it but then at the same time I found it infuriating. I’m not sure if I’ve had those feelings about a book until this point. It’s quite interesting.

      • There are four books in total — the first about her, the second about a man who might be her son, then one about the cowardly lion and I think one about Dorothy at the end. Only read the first and second, myself.

      • Hmmm, I don’t think that I’m curious enough to read the subsequent ones. I’ll probably just leave it at this. At least I’ve read it now so my curiosity is sated.

  2. I’ve honestly been passing the books by because I thought they’d be similar to the musical, which I’ve never seen, but never wanted to see. However, hearing that the book is not quite typical of fantasy, even if it is heavy on world-building, is making this one move up my tbr list! Thanks for your insights.

    Actually, I say ‘heavy on world-building’ but you only really said it was rich in world details… Could you clarify that, please?

    • I’d say that heavy on world-building would be accurate. The problem that I found was that although the details were there I sometimes felt that we were really far away from them which I don’t really like. I find it harder to get immersed in the story when this is the case. I would be interested to know what you think about it if you do read it.

  3. I’ve read Wicked three times – so I might be in the minority here, but I really liked it. Yes, there were moments when I grew a little frustrated – mostly when cool conceptual ideas seemed a little forced in the writing (like the concept of Animals/animals), but in terms of the thought and execution that went into the book, wow! I often think that Maguire must have been in a first year philosophy class when his Prof. assigned: “take a fictional world and create the socio-political climate for that world.” It’s a pretty impressive feat that he accomplishes – he gets every detail in the book!

    • It’s funny that you say that because I quite liked the idea of Animals vs animals. I was just disappointed that it didn’t seem to go anywhere with these really cool ideas.You’re right about the amount of detail. It’s pretty amazing. I think that perhaps the changing viewpoints kept me at a distance as well as the fact that we didn’t get a chance to get immersed in the details. I’ve never felt so conflicted over a book before. It’s a strange feeling.

  4. I saw the show first – and the book is way, way darker. I can’t say I “liked” it, but it certainly made me think, and made me tired. Having read and loved all of the Oz books in my long ago youth, I’m not sure I’ll read more of his books. Maybe…

    • As I read it, I racked my brain to think of how this could possibly be made into a light-hearted musical that is appropriate for kids. I’m not sure if I’m intrigued enough to go see it, though. I agree with you; it made me tired too. My brain didn’t really know what to do with it. I doubt I’ll be reading the subsequent books. I do want to read the other Oz books though.

  5. This was the second book of Gregory Maguire’s that I read, and I liked it better. (The first was the one about Cinderella’s ugly stepsister and it took me several times starting and stopping it to get through.) I agree — I was conflicted on the good and bad aspects of the book. Overall, it was an interesting take on a familiar story, but (like Gregory Maguire’s other books) there are hundreds of pages wasted on backstory and not enough time devoted to the main character. The best thing that came of this book was the musical — lol!

    • I haven’t really looked at other books of his. Thanks for letting me know about the Cinderella story. It sounds like his writing isn’t for me, but it’s probably the kind of thing I would try regardless of what I thought about Wicked. I need to just move on with my life. There are other authors out there. 🙂

  6. I really, really wanted to like this book. But I didn’t. I loved the IDEA of the book, but the actual book left me a bit cold – for many of the reasons you describe. I also thought it “tried” to be political/make some sort of statement in a way that just felt forced. I was likely looking for the wrong thing when I picked it up (ie: a fun different telling from pov of villain), and got something a bit heavier than I had planned. All that said – not for me and I haven’t read any of his other stuff.

    I did, however, see the musical, after reading the book – and quite liked that (I feel bad saying that, because, again, I’d like to be able to say that the book was SO much better – but, IMO, it wasn’t).

    • That’s exactly why I picked it up too. I think that the political stuff would have been more interesting if it actually delved into it more but it was briefly mentioned and then we flitted away to something else. I felt really unsatisfied by it all.

      Haha! That’s definitely disappointing when a play/film is better than the book. I had the same experience with The Woman in Black. I guess some script writers just have kick ass skills. 🙂

    • I picked it up for exactly the same reason. I think that the political stuff could have been more interesting if it was talked about more, but we seemed to flit back and forth over issues without ever really delving into them. The story felt so far away and I much prefer stories with immediacy where we’re up close to the characters.

      Don’t feel bad about liking the play more than the book! I’ve felt that way about films (such as The Woman in Black) but I chalk it up to it being the result of a really skilled script writer. So essentially, the someone’s writing ends up doing it justice in the end.

      Thanks for commenting and for following!

  7. Great review and you’ve made it really intriguing. I have seen the play and I was disappointed (I think it got over hyped if I’m honest) so I’m not sure how much I want to read the book. I’m also not a massive fan of rewriting a familiar story although like you say, it’s nice to see the villain’s POV so I’m still in two minds about whether I want to read this or not!

    • It’s a tough call. I’m glad that I read it, even though I’m still not sure if I liked it. I’m quite intrigued by retellings so it looked like it would be right up my alley. I guess you never really know until you try it. Now I know. 🙂

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