Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Handmaid's Tale: A Book Review

This book review contains NO SPOILERS. Enjoy! (:

Today I present to you a book review on Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. This book is one that I have heard whispers about from time to time. I think someone once warned me it was another dystopia novel, but somewhere along the way, I forgot even that. It was just another mysterious book I had on my list and decided to finally check it off.

(photographed: Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale)

And because I know I am unable to summarize a book better than the back-cover descriptions, here's this one:

"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 ..."

The Handmaid's Tale is one unlike any dystopia book I have read to this point (given the fact that I have not read 1984 and Brave New World). It's utopian society focuses largely on the suppression than woman than the society as a whole.

From the back-cover description you learn that the heroine and narrator, Offred, is not only a part of this strange, revolting society, but once experienced life as we know it presently. She had money, her own job, and her own family. However, in the present narrative of the story, she is living in this contorted world where fertility is worshiped and the word "sterile" is taboo. Unfortunately, this is where I found myself very distracted throughout the novel. I couldn't understand how in less than the span of one woman's life, we can go from life in 2012 (with universities, promiscuity, women's rights) to extreme suppression of womanhood. None of her attempts at drawing a timeline between the two satisfied me and I found myself constantly pondering the plot-holes within this novel. I wholeheartedly understand that dystopia novels tend to deal with unrealistic extremes. Take Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" for instance. That story had people wearing various handicaps just to make everyone equal (masks if you were too beautiful, ankle weights if you were too strong). Unrealistic. But in that story you can follow the line of thought (everyone must bear some kind of handicap if we are all to live as true equals)- even if it is a crazy, illogical line, you can still follow it. In The Handmaid's Tale, I felt like Atwood jumped the gun. She wanted to create this crazy, disillusioned society, but didn't follow through on a background story that I felt was strong enough to justify the current narrative plot.

But if I try to move on from those plot-holes and look at the book as a whole, I would have to say that I found it fairly affective. Dystopian novels are supposed to frighten the reader at what their society could be and this book certainly hit the mark on that point. It was creepy and horrifying. When I finished it, I wanted to throw the book across my room, and even looking at puppy photos couldn't cheer me up.

Though I didn't particularly like the narrator I did find characters to invest in, which motivated me to keep reading. Offred wasn't a horrible character, she was just extremely weak in my eyes. However, that aside, it may be useful to read books such as these not from those few brave enough to rise against (such as Montag from Fahrenheit 451), but from those who watch and are scared to do anything, as most of us would be.

Stylistically, Atwood's writing was just okay. I didn't love it, but I didn't dislike it either. At first, I found it to be a little choppy and hard to get through, but as I got used to it, I found it fit the voice of the suppressed narrator. I appreciated all the descriptions of the changing seasons and varying flowers. Those were probably my favorite stylistic pieces from her. In general, the book was quite a page turner and became one of those books that I felt stared me down if I dare close it to do anything else other than read it. Though I won't go out and buy it immediately, I will keep my eye out for her other well-known novel, The Blind Assassin

I hope you enjoyed this review, and be warned that if you plan on reading this book, it is not a light poolside read. Maybe open Adventure Time up in the next tab when you're almost done for a quick transition.

"Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some."


  1. I've seen this image so many times. This book will be added to my long list as well.

    1. What image? The book cover? It's a well-known book. Required reading in some schools.