The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

I really wanted to love this book, and I did like it once I got into it.  But.

-          It was difficult for me to get into.  I tend to dislike books written in the type of voice that assumes the reader knows everything up front (as if written to an audience of the narrator’s peers), but when in actuality you have to slowly piece it all together.  I suppose, if very well done, it can be a nice literary device.  I mean, I can see the potential to building suspense and a slow reveal, but I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book in which it was anything but annoying to me.

-          I felt left in the dark about too many motivations to be able to fully relate to the characters, especially the Commander, and to some degree the main character as well.  And where was her growth?  Her change?  And I felt too much in the dark about the background story, such as the revolution and especially what the colonies are, why they exist, etc., to believe the possibility of the story.  And the science, dear Lord, the lack of science.

-          I got the vibe from the story that the revolution and political changes came out of nowhere (I believe there was a one sentence lip service to the idea that there were signs that were ignored), but that also struck me as highly unbelievable.  And more than that, isn’t this where the author would be able to draw parallels between the world she created and the world we live in? Isn’t that the point of the dystopian cautionary tale?  The main feeling I got in this regard was when the main character explains why she didn’t join in the protests.  Is that the whole caution of the book?  Don’t be apathetic about protesting?

-          And who is the hero in this story?  Certainly not the fundamentalist Wives.  They have sympathy but more in the way of pity (and comeuppance).  But the Handmaid’s feminist mother was a subject of scorn.  It felt as though we were being warned against this possible future that not only doesn’t seem plausible, but without the hint of an alternative.  Without showing us where the society went wrong, how do we know where the author feels we would go right?

If I could believe that the author intended Gilead to be some insular anomaly that developed, where the people were kept from questioning with lies (the president and congress are all dead!), and kept from the waging civil war around their community, I could have bought this set up.

Months ago I read a short story on line that envisaged a similar future.  The story focused on a band of women that secretly supplied other women with contraception and other contraband.  It was engaging, there was no faulty explanation of how the world came to be, but was plausible given the current resurgence of debate over women’s reproductive rights.  Perhaps as an adult in 1985 The Handmaid’s Tale had the same immediacy and relevance.  It’s a shame it doesn’t translate as well some 25 years later.

Update: I found it.  So the writing is shaky and it could use some editing, but still, I find this short story to be more compelling. Check it out.  And then do something.

K’s rating of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: 5/10 mangoes

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6 Responses to The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

  1. victoriah4rt says:

    I read this about 5 years ago, and I refuse to read it again. I completely agree with you. I remember I had to study it, and I wanted to understand it but I just couldn’t, it was beyond me before I’d even got into it.

    I like your blog and I enjoyed reading your review.

    • Thanks! I’m glad I’m not the only one, I’ve only heard it widely praised so I was disappointed that I couldn’t enjoy it more.

      • victoriah4rt says:

        You shouldn’t be disappointed with your experience with it. It is a shame, but I suppose everyone is different!

        I had to write an essay on it and that quite finished me off.

      • Very true. I suppose what I’m really disappointed in is that I was thinking this would be a great statement on patriarchal dystopia, and it wasn’t that for me. I’ll just have to keep looking!

  2. I love books about dystopian futures, but I completely agree with you about the Handmaid’s Tale. I liked it, but like you, I wanted to know more. More background as opposed to just dropping hints as to what happened. I would 100% recommend reading Swastika Night, it’s short- only 100 pages or so, similar storyline (dystopian and the oppression of women-alternative history where Hitler won the war).

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