Gregory Maguire is most well known for his retelling of The Wizard of Oz which has become a hit Broadway musical: Wicked. He’s also done retellings of Cinderella in the form Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, and Snow White in Mirror Mirror. After Alice is his version of Alice in Wonderland.
I have to admit, I have never read Wicked, and I began Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and hated it. In my opinion, Maguire likes to make the stories darker and twistier than they already are, and while I love 90% of Cinderella retellings and even all of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, I just could not cope with everything that was happening to the poor characters in Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister.
Needless to say, I was very apprehensive about After Alice, but since Alice in Wonderland is already pretty twisty and full of nonsense I thought that there probably wasn’t a whole lot he could do to make it make less sense than it already did. For the most part, I was correct.
After Alice bounces back and forth between Alice’s friend Ada, who follows her down the rabbit hole and spends the whole book looking for Alice, her only friend, and Alice’s older sister still in Victorian England, Lydia, who is dealing with the fallout of both Alice and Ada having gone missing while Charles Darwin is paying a visit to her father, accompanied by a handsome young man whom Lydia rather fancies.
You do eventually get a third point of view from Siam, a slave boy Darwin’s friend has brought with him from America and is trying to adopt. Siam gets into trouble with Lydia, who locks him the spare sitting room, and Siam enters Wonderland through where? You guessed it! The looking glass. I loved that this part was included.
Anyway, Lydia’s chapters are supremely boring. She is the very quintessence of a 15-year-old girl who is trying too hard at being grown up for her own good and not really acting grown up at all. In many ways, she is the exact opposite of Wendy from Peter Pan. She flirts shamelessly with Darwin’s friend and becomes insanely jealous every time something happens to impede her flirtation. She doesn’t really care that Alice and Ada are missing, only that she is blamed and tasked with finding them.
Ada’s chapters are interesting, but they go too quickly and there aren’t enough of them. When you first meet Ada, she is barely an outline of a character. The eldest child of a pastor, thrown to the wayside in favor of a younger, colicky, brother. Ada wears a huge back brace that makes it difficult for her to walk. When she falls down the rabbit hole, she loses the brace and discovers the wonders of being able to walk without 15 pounds of metal on her back. As she learns to walk normally, her character becomes colored in. She is often thinking about what Alice would do, in part because she is actively looking for her friend, and in part because she looks up to Alice as the imaginative one in their friendship. It is not until more than halfway through the story that Ada acknowledges that maybe she has some imagination too, and that it doesn’t all belong to Alice. After this, she becomes increasingly intelligent, though maybe she was all along and just didn’t show it because she was the sidekick friend until now.
The first half of the book, I would say, was not enjoyable. The second half (especially the last quarter) got much better, even though we got less and less time with Ada and Siam in favor of the nonsense going on with Lydia. Throughout the story, I felt that Maguire’s Wonderland was very different from Lewis’. In the original story, Alice wanders through Wonderland and meets different characters and goes through big doors and small doors and is washed away by her tears, etc. In After Alice, Wonderland wanders around Ada. She lands in the forest, and a room builds itself around her. She walks through a door and ends up at the beach, then suddenly she is in a very slimmed down version of the flower garden, and she goes through another door to the Queen’s garden, where she is only briefly before going through another door to the court where Alice is on trial. The Jabberwocky scene was very well done, despite Alice fainting in a supremely un-Alice-like way. Somewhere in the middle Ada goes to a zoo and ends up in one, passes the tea party, meets a troop of performers, and answers everyone’s burning question: “Why is the raven like a writing desk?” like it’s not the hardest question asked in the history of Wonderland. In fact, it is the only question to which Alice doesn’t know the answer in the original story. The fact that Ada does shows just how far she’s come as a character.
Despite Wonderland wandering around Ada, she doesn’t seem bothered by it, but barrels on through to continue her search. It’s almost as though Alice is so weak that she is trapped in Wonderland and must live by its rules, while Ada is so strong that she lives outside of space and time in Wonderland and can bend it to her will. This is especially evident in the Jabberwocky scene at the end.
Overall, I would recommend After Alice to fans of Alice in Wonderland and other readers who are deep thinkers, but I would preface it by warning them that much of it is boring and must be slogged through. I think though, that in the end, it was worth it.
HHC Rating: 3.5 Stars