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Book review: Wicked by Gregory Maguire

wicked0001Yeah, I know. Of all the superfluous book reviews in the world, another one of Wicked is probably the superfluousmost.  After all, it’s  a New York Times bestseller, with more than three million copies in print. USA Today called it “an outstanding work of imagination.” John Updike called it an “amazing novel.” The Los Angeles Times called it “A staggering feat of wordcraft.”

And I? I call it bunk.

Hey, don’t get me wrong, I love the musical. (Or at least I love the music; I haven’t had the chance to see it on stage.) In fact, it was the musical that brought my wife and I to the book, which we read together.

We should have just read a synopsis.

The faults we found are numerous. If the goal was to somehow make the Wicked Witch of the West sympathetic, it failed. She almost reached that point fairly early on, as a student at Shiz. As the book wore–and “wore” is absolutely the right word for what became, by the end, a tedious chore to read–her motivations made less and less sense until, at the denoument, she seems to have simply lost her mind for no reason except that the author had no other way of making things match up with the events of the original Wizard of Oz. She was almost completely passive throughout, far more of a victim than an active character, making very few choices of her own, acted on by forces beyond her control. Maybe that’s supposed to be more “realistic,” but it’s also boring, annoying, and ultimately unsatisfying. Throughout I felt the controlling hand of the author-as-puppeteer, making people do things simply because there were things that had to be done, not because it made much sense for them to do them.

And ultimately, I felt a kind of anger at Maguire for building a career that apparently consists primarily of taking the work of others and trashing it for his own purposes. Oh, I know, he’s “re-imagining it for our times.”

Well, bah. Also humbug.

And that much-vaunted “wordcraft”? Also overrated, in my opinion. At times Maguire’s attempts to set his prose soaring were downright laughable, at others well-nigh incomprehensible.

In the right hands–an accomplished fantasy writer, perhaps–a retelling of the life of the Wicked Witch of the West might well have been something special. But this retelling, the one we’re saddled with now, the one that has inexplicably become so popular, is nothing special at all. If you love the original Wizard of Oz, don’t read this book. If you enjoyed the musical, don’t read this book. Only read it if you’re so curious as to what the fuss is about that you absolutely must know for yourself why everyone raves about it…and don’t mind being potentially horribly disappointed.

Not recommended by me or my wife..though we’re apparently a minority of two.

We can live with that.

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    • jemma on June 29, 2009 at 4:29 am
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    It was suggested we read this book for our book group as one of the group had already read it and thought it amazing, in particular to the ‘nature or nurture’ debate. I found it terrible, terible, absolutely terrible.
    Thank God I am not the only one. Its a shame this is where Maguire chooses to expand his talent.

    • on May 5, 2009 at 10:40 am
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    I’d love to read a good take on Oz, and Geoff Ryman’s a terrific writer. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks!

  1. Yes! I completely agree. I actually enjoyed the middle part, with the politics of the talking-animal world. Interesting idea. But as with most things in the book, it doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and I thought the beginning and end were both dismal, for all the reasons you mentioned. Glad someone could take this and make it into a fun musical, I guess.

    I know Maguire’s book has probably put you off all Oz-related fiction, but I do highly recommend Geoff Ryman’s “Was”, which sticks to the “real world,” but tells the story of the fantasy world of Oz weaving its way through several real people’s lives. Beautiful, moving, all the things “Wicked” was not.

    • Ralph Williams on April 28, 2009 at 12:46 pm
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    Good for you! I got about 2 pages into it and couldn’t take it any longer.

    • Edward Willett on April 28, 2009 at 11:51 am
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    Glad to know we weren’t the only ones to feel that way.

    I wonder if some of the rapturousness that greeted the book in some circles is because those reviewers never sully their minds with good fantasy that’s actually published as such? I can think of any number of lowly genre fantasists who could have done something spectacularly better with the same concept.

    • Diane Walton on April 28, 2009 at 10:34 am
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    Thanks, Ed! I thought I was alone in my utter disdain for that book. I bought it in good faith, figuring with all the hype, that it might actually be a good read. But it was such a chore, that I will not be buying any of the sequels.

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