You would think that an English major would graduate college and promptly read all those great works of literature she’d always wanted to read but never read in a class. Or maybe she’d re-read one of her favorite great works from the last 22 years of life and quality writing.
Not I. I would be embarrassed to say that the first book I read all the way through (meaning, I’ve started a few but this is the first I’ve finished) upon graduating from college was Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, except that I enjoyed it so much that I will happily withstand the sneers and snide comments.
The fact of the matter is that I am and have always been one of those people who reads books because they are enjoyable. Enjoyable has many meanings for me when it comes to literature, meanings which can range from “breath-taking prose and masterful storytelling which leave me stunned, thoughtful, and a better person overall” to “thrilling page-turner with flawed-but-essentially-good characters-who-of-course-triumph-in-the-end which leaves me grinning ear to ear.” As a result, I have been on the receiving end of more than a few skeptical looks when I tell people some of my favorite books; over the years, I have learned to temper my lists based on the audience. Some people are not as open-minded, shall we say, as others. Telling someone that some of your favorite books are young adult fantasy novels or historical mystery novels based around Sherlock Holmes hardly inspires confidence worthy of an English major.
I’ve been telling people for a year and a half now that Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was the last book I absolutely couldn’t put down, but this is no longer true. That excellent – and satisfyingly long – work has at last lost that distinction to Wicked, which I found not quite long enough, even at 500-some pages. I had heard that the musical was somewhat more narratively satisfying than the book, and that the book was merely entertaining, and even that the book was somewhat of a letdown, so I kept myself on my guard from the beginning. I let myself get swept away into the world and the story, but always kept an analytical part of myself outside, not letting myself get too sucked in lest I be set up for greater disappointment.
But I was never disappointed. Maguire paints his characters and his world vividly and entertainingly. I confess I’d never thought the land of Oz could be so deep and complex, but then, that is a writer’s mastery. At times it does come off a little heavy-handed, as the themes of the novel deal quite openly and directly with defining ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ but the fact of the matter is that his main character is drawn from someone called, “The Wicked Witch of the West,” who is pitted against “The Good Witch of the North.” So we can hardly blame Maguire himself for the simplistic base. Rather, we can credit him for giving complexity to a story which simplifies motivations down to good and evil. Indeed, that is the beauty of Wicked; Maguire turns uni-dimensional characters and worlds into things of substance, interest, and backstory. And that is what makes the book so much fun.