Okay, I’m going to, for the first time ever, assign a rating to a book. I hate doing that, but this book is famous and my rating won’t matter to the writer or her sales, so no damage can be done. Also, because I am who I am, I can’t just give you one set of stars. I want a more complex rating.
Five stars for the uniqueness of this plot. How she created this, I will never know because my brain just is not that good. Did Atwood lie awake at night worrying? Is that how she got here? When I lie awake at night worrying, I don’t come up with new and terrifying realities to express my worry. . .okay that’s not entirely true. I did do that. But it wasn’t because I was lying awake worrying.
I took one star away because while the main character of The Handmaid’s Tale is fully fleshed out, the other characters are not quite as much. We know something about the Commander and something about Serena, but the backstory is very limited. We know a lot about Moira, who is a kick ass heroine, regardless of her ending, but still, no backstory. I get that backstory is not something people give away freely, but. . .people like to talk. The huge change that occurred in this book to go from our world to dystopian happened basically in three years. It’s the nature of people who get anywhere close to other people to talk about it. I mean, Facebook, Twitter, blogs–it’s everywhere.
I separate that from writing. You can be a terrible writer with hardly the ability to string words into a sentence, and yet still tell a great story. The current president of the U.S. is an example of this. Writers everywhere are still waiting for his list of “the best words” but even without them, he told a story that people bought.
Atwood is an incredible story teller. I was flipping pages (which is really just swiping on a kiindle) as fast as I could. It wasn’t until I was about 30% of the way through that I realized pretty much nothing has happened. Offred goes shopping. That’s it. But the way the world is presented, one layer at a time (I refuse the onion peeling metaphor because I’m not a fan of onions), is just so fantastic. This is the part I want to re-read, to learn how she does this. To see if I could learn to do that too.
Yeah, people will get irritated with me for taking away that star because Atwood’s writing is so lush. So full of metaphors and beautiful explanations of #feelingsandthings. This is purely a personal choice for me–I don’t like a lot of that. Some, yes. And there were places where I sunk deep into the story because she has such an amazing ability to write introspection and to bring the world to life. Still, there were many places that I just started swiping. It was too much for me. I’m a pretty bare-bones writer because I’m a pretty bare-bones reader. When I see a tree, it’s a tree. It’s not a tall statue decorated in green life swaying in the wind. It’s a tree.
Also, the commas were in weird places. At least in my version they were. I only noticed because I’m a writer, though, and commas are a “thing” for me.
Three being less-than satisfactory. Which is what the rest of my rant is about, which I started before putting in my new rating system:
So, have you read this book by Margaret Atwood? The Handmaid’s Tale is very well known dystopian fiction. My feminist friends are talking a lot about it these days given our social/governmental climate. It’s even being made into a series on Hulu. I never read The Handmaid’s Tale, though, because I’m not what anybody would call #deepandmeaningful. But, given that they’ve all read it and are re-reading it, I decided to give it a try.
And oh my God, what a good book! I’ll admit it–sometimes these days reading is more chore than joy. This book grabs your from the start and won’t let go; reading was pure joy. It’s the kind of book a writer reads and thinks “This is who I want to be. I want to be a writer like this.” The Handmaid’s Tale is the kind of book a writer reads and then wants to analyze to see how to become a better writer. It is that good.
So here’s the spoiler alert. If you haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale, stop here. It’s a good book, you’ll love it, trust me. But the end is. . .well be prepared that it’s not what you’d hope for.
For everybody else, wtf? Are you kidding me? That’s not an ending! Somebody in a forum wrote about the ambiguity of the ending and how wonderful that is. Okay, maybe I’m plebeian. Maybe I don’t get the literary reasoning behind this. Maybe there’s some #deepandmeaningful reason not to end the book, and my poor little brain doesn’t have the power to see that. Maybe my IQ is seriously in question htere. But that is not an ending.
Spoiler alert # 2. Do not read past this. I’m gonna tell you what happens. You won’t like that. But I’m really irritated.
So maybe it was because I read The Handmaid’s Tale on my kindle and it said I was at 94% and I thought I had a lot more pages before the ending, but when I read “And so I step, into the darkness within; or else the light.” I expect to get into the black van with Offred and out The Truth. I’m not saying I need to know what happene to Luke or her child. I need to know what happens to Offred. I get the impression, because Nick gives her the codeword, that she’s now with the resistance, no matter how frightened she is. And after reading lots and lots of pages, I feel like I’m entitled to know that.
All right now, let’s delve a little into the details of the story. The world, where some women are basically breeders and others–older women married to high ranking government officials–is brilliant. The plot is breathtakingly (breathtaking for a writer, at least, and I mean that in the literal sense) unique.
I did have some moments of, “Really?” in terms of the timing. The world changed from normal to dystopian in 3 years. We know this because Offred has a husband and a daughter somewhere in the world. The daughter was five when she lost her and she muses that she would be 8 now. Offred became a handmaid–a breeder–soon afterward so she and the world she’s in has only been this way for 3 years. It feels though, based upon how assimilated people are, that it’s been at least 10 years if not 15. Atwood does hint at the lead up to all of this, with book burnings and such, but it’s a little vague.
So this woman, this handmaid, this breeder is living with a Commander and is supposed to produce a child for the couple. They have sex once a month, at ovulation time, in a really bizarre ritual. Because this book is years old, the world–and the writer–did not have modern techniques to ensure pregnancy, but you’d think they’d at least understand that one time, once a month, is not really enough. Still because of the religious undertones, the once a month does work in the story, even if I did want to yell a little.
All women’s lives are severely curtailed. Christianity–although that term is not used–has deemed women to be subservient to men. Sex is deemed to be only for those who can afford to breed; it’s for procreation. It seems that in this world, that those men are old. Maybe because everything’s been taken from younger ones? I don’t know. As I said, it’s only been three years.
Everybody is being watched all the time, and everybody could be a spy. This is typically dystopian but the fear of being discovered is written in every single line. We see up close and personal what happens to those who disobey near the end of the book in a terrible execution. You know it’s bad alredy, but “seeing” it is always harder.
So that’s the world basically, and you get to see it a little more page by page. You get hints to how it came about in Offred’s recollections. You feel the pain she has at having lost her daughter and husband and not knowing where they are. Offred makes no effort to “escape” really or effort to discover what happened. She’s going along to get along, and that’s in every page, too.
There is a resistance and she is sort of “recruited” by another woman. By that time, though, Offred is pretty assimilated and doesn’t really make an effort to help the resistance. For whatever reason, that does not seem to bother this resistance fighter. She continues to tell Offred things and try to convince her to ask questions and learn. This does not really make sense to me.
And then, there’s the end (I’m leaving a lot out here). At the end Offred’s resistance fighter friend is caught. A short time later (although its many pages in the book) the black van–gestapo? secret police?–comes for Offred. But one of the characters, before she goes down to get into the van, gives her a resistances code word. Offred is not sure what it means. Is he part of the resistance? Yes, Offred, yes he is, hon. You have just been pulled so deeply into this terrible world that you no longer believe.
She gets into the van.
And that’s it. End of story. Now I know other readers are wondering if Nick, the suddenly-resistance-fighter, is really a good guy. They’re wondering if Offred will be reunited with her husband and daughter. If I truly loved this character, I probably would be too. But I was able to step back enough from the story that it’s not as much a thing for me. What I want to know is:
1)Who set up a weird pimped out hotel-ish thing where men can go find hookers and have actual fun sex, which apparently, in only 3 years time no longer exists (that’s kind of a reach for me. Not sure people would give that up so easily.)
2)What job does the Commander actually have? What part did he have in creating this dystopian world? Who is head of the world? I want to know all things government, or at least a few things government.
3)What is happening in the Colonies? Where are the Colonies? Why do we have Colonies?
4) Who is the resistance? Where does it reside? Is Nick really a resistance fighter? How’s Canada and Mexico feel about all of this?
5) How did this all actually happen? I mean, yeah, I know–the government was reichstagged (the reichstag in Nazi Germany was basically Congress and was burnt to the ground, at which point Trump–I mean Hitler suspended all civil liberties) but I want more details.
6) Seriously, what about the world outside? We know that Japan is still alive and well because she sees Japanese visitors taking pictures. They are probably actually thriving, because they are here. But how are they here? What did they need to get into this new world, Gilead? We know there’s toxicity “out there.” Has only the U.S. suffered from the toxicity? What created it?
So that’s six major areas for me that I want fleshed out. But the book just ended, nothing is answered and this very interesting world, to me, now feels like a writer just creating something fascinating without any good understanding of how it happened. I am more concrete. I want details. I invested a lot of time and emotion into this book, so I feel like I’m owed those details. Otherwise, as a writer, this ending to me is just a cop out. Atwood didn’t know how to end it so she just stopped writing. I know, I know, people will try to point out the #deepandmeaningful ness of the whole thing. Maybe she did it on purpose for some literary something or other. That doesn’t work for me.
The Giver left the ending up in the air too, but I didn’t feel as dissatisfied. There are two important distinctions. First, Lowry went on to write 3 more books. And while I didn’t feel they completely answered my questions (my husband and I disagree on this), it was at least an attempt. Second, The Giver is years and years and years into the dystopian world. The separation of time, for me, means I don’t need as much detail to how everything came about. Not sure why that is, but that’s how I felt.
Atwood recently did an interview about her book and today’s political climate. I found a link when I googled for the cover, but I didn’t read it. I’m still too irritated.
So. There. That’s my rant and my rating. What did you think?