April 9, 2018

Book Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

This time, I decided to pick up a novel that had the backing of a large publisher in order to ensure that I would be reading something of higher quality. I had run across a few promos for the The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation on Hulu, and was intrigued by the story—but not enough to subscribe to Hulu. In retrospect, a month of Hulu would have been cheaper than purchasing the eBook. But enough about my poor choices, and onto the review!

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: ★☆☆☆☆

First of all, I apologize for all the spoilers in this review. Just avoid hovering over the censored text if you don’t want to read them.

Offred is a handmaid in Gilead—a near-future United States. She spends a lot of time replaying memories in her head, including those from before the theocracy took over and her training to fit into the new society. Once, she lived a normal life as a loving wife and mother, but now women are treated as subhuman, and her sole purpose is to make babies.

The pacing at the beginning was rather slow, but there were enough mysteries about Offred’s world that kept me reading. Unfortunately, none of my questions were really answered by the end. Also, the total disregard for proper punctuation was annoying.

It’s made clear that Gilead’s customs are religious in nature, however there’s not a lot of religion in the world. No one takes time out of their day to pray, meditate, go to any sort of services, or practice any traditions. There is the ceremony once a month, where a handmaid must submit to the bizarre mating ritual, but other than that and their conservative dress, the oppressive theocracy doesn’t actually make their citizens believe in anything. Or maybe they did, and the narrator just did a shitty job describing her world.

My other massive eye roll also deals with their crazy conception practices. The birth rate has plummeted, and the solution for this is to have the most fertile women have sex strictly once a month with the man they’ve been assigned, Most of the men with a handmaid are old enough to have diminished virility. That’s just not going to work. If anything, it would further decrease the birth rate. For a theocracy that has no qualms about killing people (and displaying their bodies for all to see) they would probably come up with a better solution for the whole dwindling population problem.

For the first two two-thirds of the book, Offred does her best to keep her head down and follow the rules. But then she starts breaking all those rules: playing board games with her Commander, sleeping with another man in hopes of getting pregnant, and going to an underground club dressed as a showgirl. She views all of these things as actions that have been forced upon her, further showing that she has no agency and is a reactive—and boring—character. Even at the end of Offred’s tale, she gets swept along instead of deciding her own fate.

The very end felt like a kick in the teeth. A historian gives a lecture at an academic conference, which ends up being just as boring as it sounds. The handmaid’s tale was really a sequence of cassettes where the story was recorded. I refuse to believe that someone transcribing the account of such an important historical find would do such a crappy job with punctuation, using quotation marks in some conversations and not others. The reader never learns how the theocracy took over, what their plans were, how they fell, and what happened to Offred or her family. This setup should have been at the beginning of the novel, to give the narrator’s account more context.

In all, I really did not like this book. The world, the themes, the characters, and almost everything was unbelievable and lacking. I did read a bunch of rave reviews for this book to try to understand why other people enjoy it. I just didn’t find this story as thought-provoking as other people have.

If you’re a student and are required to read this book, then read it. Otherwise, I don’t recommend it.

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