The Handmaid's Tale was yet another hyped-up disappointment for me, because it reads not like a novel but a literary exercise. It's certainly an example to be discussed in a college English class, but it's not a story.
It centres Offred, named for the man she belongs to, in the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian Christian theocracy. Offred is a Handmaid, the main role for fertile women in Gilead; she lives with a man and his infertile Wife where her only purpose is as a vessel for babies that the Wife will then raise. Gilead has a population crisis and so having babies is the most important thing anyone can do; Offred's only worth lies in her "viable ovaries". Women in this society are property and are not allowed to read or write. They're allowed out once a day to shop for groceries with their Handmaid pair and see the bodies hanging from the Wall.
Btw, the population crisis comes from mass infertility caused by radioactivity ... and chemicals ... and anthrax ... and Iran? Lots of things alluded to, none explained.
The Handmaid's Tale is lyrically written, quite often to a fault, but still impressive. Atwood clearly has a mastery of arranging the English language and making aesthetically-pleasing phrases. Unfortunately, she gets a bit carried away and writes incredibly run-on sentences with ten commas. She also refuses to use quotation marks for some reason -- to make it more dream-like or stream-of-consciousness, I guess? She's also good at analogies and metaphors.
“We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.”
This book is framed as the handmaid's literal diary, recorded into audiotapes and discovered by historians hundreds of years later to be regarded curiously as a potential source document for the historical Republic of Gilead, though this is only made clear in the Epilogue. It's very much a literary exercise in framing, playing with narrator-as-historical-source-material and a somewhat unreliable narrator who sometimes just says random things. Maybe if this had been told to me at the start it would've been okay, but I just felt betrayed by it at the end.
It just seemed designed to be clever, rather than to be a good story. Yes, it's an interesting format, but the playing with my suspension of disbelief just annoyed me.
The opposite of Brave New World, which was entirely exposition; this is just hints, with next to no payoff or explanation of what's going on. We're not even told how this totalitarian regime came about so suddenly until halfway through the book, and even then it's vague: [Mild Spoilers] a Christian army of some kind shoot dead every member of Congress and the President, suspend the constitution and take away women's rights. Women become property, which Offred (with her old name) discovers when she tries to buy something and the Compubank doesn't recognise her card because all her money has been transferred to her husband since property can't own property. This is dramatic and quite interesting, but it's never really explained properly how this could possibly happen in the space of a few weeks, and why nobody fought back. [/End Spoilers]
Also, right before the takeover there were apparently intense feminist marches all the time and you were supposed to hate men? I dunno.
The characters themselves seemed fairly unrealistic. Moira and Offred's mother seemed reasonably realistic, but we mostly only hear stuff about them from before the theocratic coup. The Wife seems one-dimensional, and the Guardians pretty boring. The Commander at least has his illicit Scrabble games. Luke, her husband before the takeover, was a pretty interesting character, but we only get her wonderings about his fate.
Offred herself was a pain. A typical quibble with the younger YA characters is their whining, but she was 33 and did it all the time while being the most passive person going. I don't even begrudge her being Luke's Other Woman before the takeover because the rest of her is just so annoying. Like wow. Get a grip. Yes, her life was pretty terrible, but why write a book about someone who just accepts it? I think it was another lesson we were meant to learn, about the forgotten people in revolutions, but again, I don't care to be preached at in novels.
Always a big issue for me; characters who lack agency. Offred just does what people tell her, always. Even when it's stuff she could get in trouble for, it's not compelling because it's still not her own idea. Sure, people get shot for disobeying, but we don't read books for this.
Again, this is where YA is better (Offred is 33). Whether it's because teenage optimism or invincibility or something else, a YA heroine would've done something. It might've gone badly and had a sad ending, but there would have been a plot of some kind, and that was just missing here. Honestly, all the adult novels I've read lately have been disappointing; do adults just stop daring to do things? How depressing. As a very proactive person, I identify much more with YA characters. If anyone has recommendations of adult speculative fiction featuring characters with agency, please tell me in the comments or Tweet me @frizzyroselle.
I did like the shift in Offred's original husband's behaviour when she became his property. She was freaking out about it (understandably) but he was much calmer, saying something like 'you know I always take care of you', which would normally be comforting but is now terrifying because he legally owns her. When they go to sleep, she's thinking 'We are no longer each other's; I am his." That was one part that did get to me.
Offred and Moira, her rebellious friend who escaped the training School they were brought to to be re-educated into Handmaids, have a pretty interesting relationship, with Moira mad at Offred for passively accepting her fate. I quite liked Moira -- she was the only one I really saw try to do anything, but her story ends with Offred saying she has no idea what happened to her because she never heard from her again.
There's also the relationship between the Handmaids and the infertile Wives, who must hold the Handmaids' hands as their husbands have sex with the Handmaid in hopes of creating a child and combating the population crisis. For obvious reasons, they dislike the Handmaids, and that's quite clear.
There were lots of cool concepts here: colour-coded costumes depending on your role in society, a re-education school to transform women into Handmaid's. But so many things were mentioned and then never explained or revisited. For example, due to chemicals or radiation or something, some babies are born Unbabies and must be taken away somewhere because they're awful. What does that mean? Do they come out as goat-human hybrids, or something? Confusing. And then the Unwomen, who are apparently shipped off to the Colonies to die cleaning up toxic waste or pick cotton. We know some of them are old women and some are incorrigibles like Moira who get caught and not executed, but what's it like there? If this was a YA book, someone would've gone there and found out what the deal is, but here nobody bothers.
There's apparently an underground resistance but we never see it do anything, and there's a war on TV but it might be made up, Offred doesn't really know.
There's no plot really, so the whole book is spend showing bits of the world and still nothing is satisfactorily covered.
There are lots of interesting concepts here, but they're just not fleshed out enough.
Oh my god how many times can someone possibly describe the curtains?!?! I swear she did it at least seven times, could be way more. I get that that's a theme of the book, supposed to illustrate the emptiness of her life and womb or ...something. But I hate that sort of thing in a book -- if you can't include symbolism without boring the socks off the reader, don't include it.
The book ends when Offred's diary stops and we never find out what happens to her. All we get is an epilogue where historians at a symposium on Gileadean history discuss the trustworthiness of her diary as a source. I HATE open endings, HATE them. I was wondering how it was going to wrap up when it was so close to the end and still no plot had started, and the answer is that it didn't. Grrr. [/End Spoilers]
Overall, I think this was a book meant to teach a lesson, and on the way it lost touch with its actual story. If I was looking for a lesson without a story, I would've read a non-fiction book. 2 stars.