Monday, April 7, 2014

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

If you loved this book, you won't like this review. I do not like to "down" a published author because what do I know? I'm just reading a book, not writing one (at least not yet!), but I find myself writing a "bad" review.

I did not enjoy reading (or should I say trudging through) The Handmaid's Tale. I blame myself partly. I do not like dystopian literature on the whole - I find it far-fetched, predictable, and irrecoverably cliched. However, I've tried to like it (give me a little credit) and that's not to say there aren't some dystopian books I enjoyed; Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, and 1984 all come to mind, but the list of top ten dystopian fiction novels bores me to tears as a grouping.

I primarily picked up The Handmaid's Tale because Margaret Atwood is coming to Austin Peay State University and I enjoy author talks. But, I like to have read the author's work prior to seeing them. Coming off the heels of wildly successful (albeit trite) modern dystopian fiction (The Hunger Games, Divergent)  I thought I'd try my hand at a classic dystopian piece I'd not yet read - I really wanted to see if it was any better than the modern depictions of a dystopian universe. Enter Atwood.

This novel can basically be told in three parts:
  1. The world is a disaster and a dictator like rule has descended upon those left living. For women, a plumb job is being a handmaid, i.e. -  a baby factory. They dress in red habits like nuns but lay in-between a wife's legs while the husband shags her. This, of course, is a sad state of affairs for the handmaid protagonist and her mind thrusts her back into better times. Part one is a series of unfortunate events and flashbacks.
  2. The truly predictable part comes in: She starts sleeping with The Commander (head of the household) on the side not parked between his wife's legs. The suggests pleasure and pleasure is bad. She is also now sleeping with Nick at the request or force of The Commander's wife because she isn't getting pregnant by the coerced method. All the relationships are forbidden by law and she's taking a big risk, as are they, blah blah blah. Guess who gets her pregnant - I'll give you a hint, it ain't the right guy. But of course, isn't that always the way?
  3. There's an uprising of resistance to the all-controlling government and people she didn't know were involved are being executed in the public square for treason (basically). Her bestest buddy Oflgen escapes and offs herself (suicide seems to always be a part of dystopian literature) and in the end, our dear handmaid is hauled away in a black car to either safety or demise? We don't know.
And that's it. Hmmmm....this could have been a series, like The Hunger Games or Divergent. Let's take a look at the ol' formula here for the modern day trilogy:
  1. Corrupt government, female protagonist
  2. Failed attempt at relationship, has a choice between two men, often struggles with the wrong guy/right guy and while doing so, a revolt is rising.
  3. Revolt comes to a head, protagonist either marries in the new world or escapes.
Do I have that right? I think so. Margaret Atwood could have made a killing in a box-office trilogy. Too bad YA lit didn't kick off until Harry Potter took the world by storm.

Now, there were a few moments I enjoyed - I connected with the main character when she spoke of losing her daughter when the world ended. I felt for her and I could appreciate the flashbacks to a time when she was a mother out of love, out of devotion. I saw a nice connection that I'll be using in my class next year as I teach The Crucible to my students about the importance of having a name, your name, the only one that's truly your own. And I LOVED the etched writing in the floor:

Nome to bastardes carborundorm!

Don't let the bastards get you!

That may have been the best part of the book. But that's it - not enough to make the story engaging.

For me and my literary choices as I reach for books in the future, I will avoid the dystopian genre. It's just not my cup of tea (no matter the sugar and the sexual innuendo).

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