Published by William Morrow on October 27 2015
Alice in Wonderland retellings seem to be everywhere these days, and they’re all over the map in terms of style and plot. This latest from Wicked author Gregory Maguire is something quite different from other Alice books I’ve read, and I quite enjoyed it. Would I recommend it to my readers, though? That’s the question. If you’ve read Maguire before—and seeing Wicked on Broadway doesn’t count!—then you will appreciate the author’s distinct writing style. I personally love his writing, although at times it’s a bit too much, as he tends to use words I’ve never heard of before. But in this case—a story set in Victorian England with all its social rules and society’s fear of a changing world—his style is perfectly suited to the tale.
If you’re looking for a whimsical, lighthearted Wonderland story, however, you’ll need to look elsewhere. After Alice is a more contemplative examination of family and society in 1860s Oxford, with somber undertones. The story is made up of very short chapters that alternate between two groups of characters. First we have a ten-year old girl named Ada, Alice’s best friend, who has been sent to deliver a jar of marmalade to Alice’s family. She is supposed to be accompanied by her governess Miss Armstrong, but she manages to escape the house before Miss Armstrong realizes she’s gone, and so Ada sets out on an adventure. Somewhere along the way she discovers—and falls into—the famous rabbit hole that leads to Maguire’s version of Wonderland. Ada’s story parallels that of Alice’s famous adventures: she meets many of the familiar characters, like the Queen of Hearts, the Walrus, Humpty Dumpty and the Cheshire Cat, and all the while she’s looking for Alice, who has disappeared (“Again!”).
The second point of view revolves around Alice’s sister Lydia, who has been given the task of looking out for her sister (she’s clearly failed at this task). Alice is nowhere to be found, but you can guess that at this point she’s already fallen down the rabbit hole herself before the story even starts, and is knee-deep in her own adventures. Lydia is joined by a group of odd characters, including a Mr. Darwin (yes, that Mr. Darwin!), a man from America named Mr. Winter, and the young boy he’s freed from slavery named Siam (Siam manages to fall through a looking-glass in Alice’s house). Lydia is sent to find Alice (everyone in the story seems to be looking for her!), and as she makes her way through the streets of Oxford with Mr. Winter (who is looking for Siam) and Miss Armstrong (who is looking for Ada), the three have their own adventure, of sorts, but their chapters are more character study than fast-paced action scenes.
I’ve come to realize, after reading After Alice, that I’m actually not a big Alice in Wonderland fan after all, LOL! In fact, this may be the last retelling I read for a while. I was hoping Maguire would do something original with the story, but in fact the chapters spent with Ada and Siam were my least favorites, for some reason. I have to admit I haven’t read Lewis Carroll’s original story, so I may have missed some of the references, but many of those scenes felt too familiar, and even the dialog seemed to be pulled directly from the original, like “Don’t take the advice of anyone you meet here. We’re all mad.” Maguire does a nice job of echoing Carroll’s nonsensical wordplay, but after a while it became tedious, and I wanted nothing more than to bolt out of the rabbit hole myself and go back to the real world.
And the “real world” is where After Alice really shines, in my opinion. I particularly loved the stories of Ada and Lydia, who are both connected to Alice but have completely separate struggles that have nothing to do with her. Ada, in some gruesome Victorian nightmare, has been forced to wear an “iron corset” her entire life, due to a crooked spine, which miraculously breaks apart during her fall down the rabbit hole, leaving her free for the first time. (As I was reading this, I imagined the scene in Forrest Gump where Forrest’s horrible leg braces fall away.) Later in the book, Maguire compares her dreaded corset to the Jabberwock, the monster in Alice in Wonderland, which was the one Alice moment I loved. Ada’s story was one of breaking away from her stifling life. Her mother has recently had a new baby, and Ada, the big sister, has been pushed aside, as all the attention is now focused on the baby. For a ten-year-old, Ada turns out to have a wonderful strength of character, and I cheered her on from the moment she entered the story.
Lydia, on the other hand, has just lost her mother, and is dealing with the horrible death of a beloved parent. Throughout the story she is forced to make decisions that she isn’t ready to make, a young girl who still needs the teaching and advice of her mother. Watching her struggle through those decisions, as well as trying to make sense of the death itself, was poignant and heartbreaking.
In the end, After Alice was a mixed bagged for me. I adored Maguire’s beautiful imagery, and I especially loved the way his characters struggle to find their place in a society that is on the brink of great change. But as an Alice in Wonderland re-imagining, it fell short for me, since most of the magical moments in the story happened outside of the rabbit hole. If you’re in the mood for a whimsical Alice retelling, then this book probably won’t work for you. But if you love peering into the dark parts of what it means to be human, I suggest you give this book a try.