Thursday, February 16, 2012

Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Reviewed by Connie

Published: 1985

It's aboutOffred 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 fertility, 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... (stolen from Goodreads this time)

I thought: I think it's important to mention that one of my very favorite books is 1984 by George Orwell, and it is the standard against which I hold every other dystopian novel I read. As such, I had a complicated experience with The Handmaid's Tale.

Atwood's writing style is beyond reproach, and she appears, above all, to be a talented storyteller. Her main character, Offred, is interesting and complex enough to invest interest in, which is pretty significant, considered the majority of the book consists of her inner monologue. And I loved how woman-power it was. Atwood is very successful in depicting many different women's reactions and attitudes toward the patriarchal takeover, so in that sense the book is pretty realistic. Though most of them are boiled down to the basics, when I would meet another woman, I would have the feeling that I'd met that woman before. To put it briefly, Atwood gets women.

Although this is a dystopia, I thought much of the most insightful social commentaries are relatively understated-- slipped in here and there, so if you weren't paying close enough attention, you might miss it. Like this:

"The Marthas are not supposed to fraternize with us. Fraternize means to behave like a brother. Luke told me that. He said there was no corresponding word that meant to behave like a sister. Sororize, it would have to be, he said. From the Latin."

And parts of the book certainly are moving and insightful and, occasionally, chillingly prophetic, especially read in a post-9/11 context.

However, I didn't absolutely love the book. The tale begins in the midst of the dystopian government's reign, and the history of how the government came to power and the explanation of the new society's rules are gradually disclosed. In some ways, this strategy works-- Offred describes it as "reconstructing" her life bit by bit, so when the trauma of such an upheaval is considered, the disjointed narrative seems the way to go. BUT, I found the necessary "suspension of disbelief" more difficult because of that structure. Without knowing the history and rules of the society for the beginning half of the novel, the whole situation seemed almost too far-fetched to be truly thought-provoking.

Ingrid and Christina both loved this novel, and if I remember correctly, at least one of them referred to it as life-changing. I read this with the intention of adding my approving voice, but my initial reaction was more reserved. After finishing it, I didn't find myself contemplating it, as I couldn't help but do with 1984. I didn't find in Atwood's book the same depth or the emotional impact of Orwell's. 1984 shakes you to the very foundation and demands that you reanalyze your most preciously held beliefs. For the first week or so after reading Atwood's book, I believed that The Handmaid's Tale doesn't demand as much introspection, and really, what's a dystopian novel for if not to provoke introspection?

Now, having been removed from the book for over a week, I find myself rethinking my original conclusion. I have found that while Atwood's dystopia doesn't thunder and shake like Orwell's, it quietly plants a seed of thought. As I have revisited the book to write this review, reading over passages I had highlighted, I have found myself thinking about it more and more. I believe I will need to re-read this book to truly appreciate or understand it, and I plan to.

Verdict: On the Shelf

Warnings: A couple mild descriptions of sex

Favorite excerpts:
"The Republic of Gilead, said Aunt Lydia, knows no bounds. Gilead is within you."

"There's time to spare. This is one of the things I wasn't prepared for -- the amount of unfilled time, the long parentheses of nothing. Time as white as sound. If only I could embroider. Weave, knit, something to do with my hands. I want a cigarette. I remember walking in art galleries, through the nineteenth century: the obsession they had then with harems. Dozens of paintings of harems, fat women lolling on divans, turbans on their heads or velvet caps, being fanned with peacock tails, a eunuch in the background standing guard. Studies of sedentary flesh, painted by men who'd never been there. These pictures were supposed to be erotic, and I thought they were, at the time; but I see now what they were really about. They were paintings about suspended animation; about waiting, about objects not in use.

They were paintings about boredom. But maybe boredom is erotic, when women do it, for men."

What I'm reading next: The Book of Mormon Girl by Joanna Brooks