There's a writing exercise that my husband and I like to use when describing a story (whether it's one of our current projects, a movie we've seen, or a TV show we want to watch with someone) -- it has been used by countless writers, but it's a fun exercise and can tell you a lot about a story. What's the theme? What is the author trying to communicate through the story? Are the characters all struggling/dealing with this concept in some way?
The exercise consists of finding the one word that the entire story revolves around.
Harry Potter is about death. The death of friends and family, life after death, and the seeking for a way to escape death. Every character deals with it differently, but all of them experience it. (I'm avoiding spoilers just in case *someone* on this green earth has not read this amazing series)
The Thief (an incredible book by Megan Whalen Turner) is about deceit. The whole time, you think the story's going one way, and then you find out that the main characters were hiding something -- two or three of them hiding information from YOU! Just...brilliant.
Alice in Wonderland (the 2010 movie by Tim Burton) is about destiny. Alice struggles with the knowledge that she should be the White Queen's champion, even though she's struggling with the basics -- her name, who she is, and what life she wants. The Caterpillar's destiny is being a butterfly. Everyone has a destiny, but not everyone is alright with the outcome -- the Knave, the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, Hamish, and Alice's mother/brother-in-law come to mind. This is what makes the story interesting -- those unhappy people fought against it with various results.
All that to explain what I disliked about "What-The-Dickens"...I couldn't figure out what it was about. I suppose you could say that it was about belief, but that isn't quite true. And it isn't really about identity, either. If a reader can't tell where you're going and doesn't get the message, maybe it needs to be made more clear. (I also didn't care for the tone -- it sounded like a bitter, sardonic individual was telling me that the world is a cold, hard place where I'll never fit in, but was somewhat wishy-washy in saying it, like they couldn't decide if I could take it or not. Now, I don't really like sappy happy endings. I like my share of bittersweet. But really?)
Have you read anything by Gregory Maguire? Are his other works like this? And if you've read What-the-Dickens, do you know what it's about?