Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Book Review: The Handmaid's Tale

Title: The Handmaid's Tale
Edition: First American Edition
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Publication Date: January 1, 1986

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now...

My Review

Upon starting The Handmaid's Tale, it had been a few years since I read a book by Margaret Atwood. In college, I had a professor who absolutley loved Atwood, so I was able to read two of her books in two different classes. Those books were Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Luckily for me, I enjoyed both of them, so I knew that I was getting into a very good book before I even started The Handmaid's Tale.

The Handmaid's Tale is the story of Offred, a young woman now living in the middle of a nightmare. The United States of America no longer exists because a religious group attacked the government, suspended the Constitution, and has started a country of their own out of the ruins. The novel's narrator, stripped of her given name and now called Offred (denoting she belongs to a Commander named Fred), now lives in that world. The land is now known as Gilead, and its people are divided into castes. Offred is one of the last remaining fertile women in the country, so she's been made a handmaid. It's her duty to become pregnant and provide a child to the family she serves.

So what can I say about The Handmaid's Tale that hasn't already been said in the last three decades? Probably not a lot, but with today's political climate, I'll admit that this book is downright scary. Is it likely that we'll see events like those in the book transpire in our lives? No, but it doesn't seem one hundred percent unlikely, either. Atwood's magic here is how real she makes Gilead. Yes, it's a dystopian novel set in the ruins of America. Yes, that makes it sound all too familiar to many of the dystopian books that have been published in the past decade. But something about The Handmaid's Tale is different. Reading like book is like looking out your window to see Handmaids walking down the street. It's like feeling the religious and political riots. It's just that real.

I also liked the back and forth of the novel. While serving her new "family," Offred reflects on the fall of the United States and the rise of Gilead. She thinks back to her time with her husband Luke and her daughter. For me, this is the most heartbreaking part of the book. How hard it must be for her to remember the time before, to have such distinct and clear memories of the past. It's devastatingly beautiful because readers know she's aching but clinging to the past is the only way to keep hope.

There's also a cult-like mentality about this book. To survive in Gilead, you must conform. Follow the new religion. Follow the new rules. Be a good wife or handmaid. The characters in this book must do this or face severe punishment. Atwood takes these rules and runs with them. Everything these characters do will make you think twice. Did they really just do that? Did they really make them do that? It's literally an insane trip.

So in a world full of dystopian novels, why read this one? (Aside from the Hulu show...) For one, it's full of human emotion, especially in a world where it seems like emotion is trying to be taken away. I was so invested in everything that happened in this book from Offred's past to her daily walks to her behavior. It's a thrill ride of a book that everyone should read before they die. And while the novel is considered speculative, just keep in mind that Margaret Atwood set out to write a book that wasn't just speculative...

I would recommend this book for fans of Atwood, speculative fiction, and for fans of Katie Coyle's Vivian Apple At the End of the World and Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle.

Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa and grew up in northern Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto and her master's degree from Radcliffe College.
Throughout her writing career, Margaret Atwood has received numerous awards and honourary degrees. She is the author of more than thirty-five volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction and is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman (1970), The Handmaid's Tale (1983), The Robber Bride (1994), Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000. Atwood's dystopic novel, Oryx and Crake, was published in 2003. The Tent (mini-fictions) and Moral Disorder (short stories) both appeared in 2006. Her most recent volume of poetry, The Door, was published in 2007. Her non-fiction book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth ­ in the Massey series, appeared in 2008, and her most recent novel, The Year of the Flood, in the autumn of 2009. Ms. Atwood's work has been published in more than forty languages, including Farsi, Japanese, Turkish, Finnish, Korean, Icelandic and Estonian. In 2004 she co-invented the Long Pen TM.
Margaret Atwood currently lives in Toronto with writer Graeme Gibson. 
Associations: Margaret Atwood was President of the Writers' Union of Canada from May 1981 to May 1982, and was President of International P.E.N., Canadian Centre (English Speaking) from 1984-1986. She and Graeme Gibson are the Joint Honourary Presidents of the Rare Bird Society within BirdLife International. Ms. Atwood is also a current Vice-President of PEN International.

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