Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wanted to read this book before talk of the TV show caused the plot to enter the wider zeitgeist and ruin it for me. I’m going to put any big spoilers in the spoiler tag, but this is a book from the 80s and there’s a TV show now that everyone is talking about. (At least 2 podcasts I listen to have spoken abou it) So if you want a pristine read – stop reading this review or anything else online and go read it! Amazon said it’d take 5 hours to read and I think that’s more or less on point. You can finish it over a couple of afternoons if it’s that important to you. OK, now that we have those preliminaries out of the way we can begin with the review proper.

I have so many things I want to talk about that this review may end up being a bit disjointed. Sorry about that. First of all, this book was devastating to me as a parent. I have two daughters and one of them is the same age as Offred’s daughter in the before timeline. (If you’re reading this review because you don’t care about minor spoilers – not because you’ve read it and want to see what others have said – there are 3 timeslines plus a meta-timeline. 1 – Before the formation of dystopia; 2 – Our Protagonist in the reeducation camp; 3 – present time for our narrator; meta – it’s a narrative being told to someone so there’s an after the fact-ness to that timeline) I’ve struggled in the past with the knowledge that if I were to die today, she’d not really have anything but the foggiest of memories of me. The idea that Offred’s daughter could have been brainwashed so easily because she didn’t really remember the past is heartbreaking – especially considering the role of women in the society. Also, the crazy pressure the women were under to get pregnant. As part of a couple who took a while for both pregnancies, it was hard enough without the threat of death over your head. Although I’m not a woman, I felt like Ms Atwood did an awesome job of communicating the way pregnancy and birth are traumatizing in normal circumstances and in the circumstances of Gilead.

Second, I looked at Ms Atwood’s age and correctly surmised the reason for this book’s plot. She’d grown up and reached adulthood in the 1960s. She’d seen women go from having minor rights to becoming full citizens with equal-ish rights. And then twenty years later she saw the Moral Majority (religious right) campaigning so hard to overturn these gains. I remember reading books from the church library about how the Equal Rights Amendment was going to ruin society and how it was going to demoralize men because they wouldn’t have anything they were special at anymore. And a bunch of other stuff. Ms Atwood has one of her characters use similar lines when explaining motives to Offred. (A podcast interview with one of the creators had him mention that while the TV show might seem of the moment to people who want to criticize it as anti-current administration, it was in reaction to what I stated above)

Third, so I don’t know if this has been going on for a long time, but Bush, Obama, and now Trump – everyone who’s in the other party has diluted the epithet by comparing them to Hitler and fascists. So I don’t want to be yet another me too. I bet there’ll be a few dozen think pieces (thanks to the TV show) about how this is an important story now because of the current administration. I’m going to swing in a slightly different way. To begin with, the march towards ever more freedom and equality and awesomeness is not a given and is not always linear. Ms Atwood was not creating a future that could never be – she’d seen it happen in Iran. Iran before the Ayatollahs was just as liberal as the USA. You can see bikini ads from Iran and their fashion looked just like ours. Sure, they didn’t get as dystopian as Gilead, but I’m sure any women alive at the time of the transition would have felt as much dissonance as Offred. And we’ve reached some kind of world zeitgeist with fascist or far right parties winning elections or at least being taken seriously for the first time in decades. It’s not 100% unlikely that things like this could happen here. Shoot – the book even starts with a terrorist attack blamed on Muslim terrorists. That is STILL happening. There have been at least a half dozen attacks that were blamed on Muslims before we realized, nope – right wing white guys. eg The Oklahoma Bombing

Fourth, maybe this is because ever since reading 1984 and Brave New World, I’ve mostly read YA Dystopia, but I kept forgetting our protagonist was a grown woman. It doesn’t help that they were referred to as girls and the Aunts at the reeducation center treated them like kids.

Fifth, I really enjoyed Ms Atwood’s great ability to create compelling and realistic characters. Offred wasn’t a blameless Mary Sue. She had an affair with Luke before he was divorced and they got married. (The second marriage was a great plot point – although I think I missed that’s why they had to run away until I got to the epilogue) She acts selfishly at times. Shoot, her whole thing with Nick was crazy.

Sixth, it was interesting having an unreliable narrator. Most recently I’ve been dealing with that from the A Song of Ice and Fire books (Game of Thrones to you TV-only people). But in that case, most of them don’t realize they’re being unreliable. They don’t have complete understanding of what’s going on or are fooling themselves. This one was someone recollecting what happened. Although the most fun part (and the part that really drove it home) was where she had 3 descriptions of what happened with Nick (and I think even after the third one she said it wasn’t the whole truth).

Seventh, I couldn’t stop myself from schadenfreude against Serena Joy. Because it’s such a weird human trait that we let people get away with such hypocrisy without calling them out on every turn. Women on TV constantly calling for a return to domesticity while they avail themselves of the freedom to have the same jobs men do. Oh, the deliciousness of Joy’s lack of Joy in the world view she made money peddling.

Eighth, Ms Atwood made good use of the concept – “they came for the gypsies and I did nothing because I wasn’t a gypsy….etc”. She had the society slowly remove people until it was too late. First the gays then the slutty people and so on until they reached the people who were on a second marriage and it was too late at that point – too many people had bought into the new society.

Finally, the scene where Offred is cut off from the economy has completely soured me on electronic-only money. I didn’t get why it mattered if you weren’t buying drugs. But now I completely understand – it is control over commerce. (in fact, I’d seen similar issues with credit card companies being shied away from processing payments from certain online places, but hadn’t put 2 and 2 together).

Like all dystopia books, I think people need to read it and then remain vigilant against the dangers. I think 1984 has done more to keep us safe from fascism than any other book. It’s only in modern times that we’ve started to screw ourselves via Facebook and allowing rights to be eroded because fewer people died in a few plane crashes than die from most things we can actually prevent via diet, or restricting gun access, or keeping pools safe, or driving at the speed limit….

Post Script: Because 2 of the first Handmaids we’re introduced to are Of and then word that could be a place or name – Glen and Warren – it took me WAAAAAAAAAAY too long to realize they were possessive names.

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