Friday, May 26, 2017

Fiction Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

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I know it’s hard to believe, since I like science fiction, but I have never read a novel by Margaret Atwood (only her nonfiction book on science fiction). At the top of my must-read list was The Handmaid’s Tale, and I bought a copy in our local used bookstore many years ago. I couldn’t wait to read it, but like so many books at my house, it was soon overshadowed by review books, book group books, books given to me as gifts, and books lent from friends and family. So, I was thrilled when one of my book groups chose it for our May read, and I finally had an extra push to read this modern dystopian classic.

The novel jumps right into the story, as an unnamed narrator, a young woman, remembers her days in some sort of training center with other scared young women, as she sets out to go shopping from her current home. We soon learn that she, who has been renamed Offred in her new home, is a Handmaid in a world where fertility has become a crisis. The head of her household is the Commander, a man of high standing in the community. He is married, and his Wife runs the household, which includes two servants, known as Marthas, in addition to Offred.

As a Handmaid, Offred’s job – and entire function in society – is to bear children for the upper-level Wives who are unable to on their own. Despite this strange set-up with two women in one household, it is a curiously Puritan society, run by men. The Commander is only allowed to have sex with Offred during a Ceremony, a horrible experience where the Wife holds the Handmaid in her arms while her husband “plants his seed.” The Handmaids, dressed in red, are only allowed to go out for the daily shopping, paired up with another Handmaid.

Amidst this very controlled and limited life, Offred remembers her old life in flashbacks, what life was like “before.” She had a college education and a job she enjoyed and was happily married with a five-year old daughter. There were signs of the changes that were coming, but most people failed to take them seriously or take any action. By the time they realized that their family was in danger, it was too late.

Offred’s story in the present day moves forward, with monotonous routine but plenty of surprises along the way for the reader. Meanwhile, we learn of her previous life and her time at the Red Center (training for Handmaids) bit by bit, through her memories. Finally, at the very end of the novel, some of the “history” of this period is revealed in a clever way so that we finally get some information about how all this came about.

If you haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale before (many people read it in school or when it first came out in 1985), you have probably been hearing about it lately. Hulu recently launched a new TV series based on the novel that has gotten rave reviews and has helped to boost the original novel to the top of the best-seller lists (along with most other dystopian classics). The story is peppered with phrases and events that have parallels in today’s world, making you wonder whether Atwood was prescient, having written this novel in the 1980’s.

We had a very interesting discussion in our book group. Normally, we avoid talking about politics, but it was pretty impossible in this case, and our discussions of the novel often came back to what is happening in the world today. The group was split in their overall opinion of the novel. Some, including me, enjoyed reading it and thought it was well-written. Others didn’t enjoy it as much, either because they found it depressing or because they didn’t like the narrative style. One thing we all agreed on, though, was that it was incredibly thought-provoking and especially relevant today. 

This passage particularly struck me, as Offred reflects on her life “before,” and how things came to change so drastically:
“Is that how we lived, then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now.

We lived as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”

I know that I am guilty of ignoring, just because I get so worn out by the relentless bad news. Despite the differing opinions in our book group, we had a lively and in-depth discussion on a wide range of topics that are introduced by The Handmaid’s Tale. This dystopian classic from the 1980’s not only holds up today but is especially relevant – and chilling – in its picture of a society bent on regulating morality and subjugating women, all in the name of religion. I’m glad to have finally read the novel, and now I wish I could see the new TV show – we might just have to sign up for Hulu!

311 pages, Fawcett Columbine

P.S. Has anyone seen this 1990 movie adaptation (link below)? Is it any good?

The Handmaids Tale
by Margaret AtwoodTrade Paperback
Powells.com

2 comments:

  1. I read this book when it first came out and I remember that I thought it was excellent. I feel like I should re-read it.

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    1. Sounds like a great idea - it certainly is a hot topic right now!

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