2019 Reading List: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Once again, I love reading about a futuristic world that could plausibly and theoretically come to fruition.

I am late to the game, but I honestly don’t know much about The Handmaid’s Tale phenomenon that is on Hulu. I don’t have Hulu. Pretty much all I know about it is Peggy Olson wears a red dress.

When I picked up this book, I actually anticipated reading historical fiction.

Funny, how Margaret Atwood takes us to a place in the future where we’ve actually reverted to the past, implemented archaic politics and policies and cultural norms, surrounded by the desire for power and control. Is that not where we’re at today?

We’re detaining children and separating them from their immigrant parents. We’re controlling women by controlling their access to birth control and prenatal care and, if they want it, their right to their bodies through abortions? We’re allowing gun rights advocates and activists to keep the laws unchanged that are allowing firearms into the wrong hands, the hands that shoot up children’s schools, places of worship, sporting events, and supermarkets. I could go on.

Instead, I’ll turn to the book.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, is written as a sort of diary. So much so that I felt most of it was more descriptive of the narrator’s thoughts, rather than of the plot itself. For the first half of the book, I wasn’t sure what the plot actually was. But the thoughts were so well written, I didn’t find the book slow or tedious.

The narrator, Offred, is a Handmaid. She is being used only for sex once a month, to conceive a child with the Commander. This is a world in which the birth rate has so drastically declined from overuse of chemicals, exposure to substances, birth control, etc., that most women can’t have children (and most men, but they don’t admit that. They make the women’s problem).

There is a pecking order. The Commander is married to the Wife. The Handmaids have the babies. (most babies are born with defects anyway). The Marthas are the cooks and maids. The Guardians are the police. The Eyes are the government spies. The Aunts are the teachers, the ones who brainwash the Handmaids into thinking that this is the way it has to be, or they’ll die or be sent to the Colonies – essentially manual slave labor cleaning up toxic waste or farming. Women are not allowed to read. They can’t have a job or own land or control money.

Offred’s life is very structured. But she remembers her past life, the one in which she was married to Luke and has a daughter and a job and money.

I got the sense that this new pecking order had not been in place for too long. I think no more than 3-5 years. And yet, sometimes Offred acted as if the past life was so long ago, barely remembering. Sometimes she acted like it was so recent.

I can’t decide how much I liked this book. I thought it was well-written. Well thought-out. The book was written in 1985, but set in the future, so the timing seemed to me like Atwood was planning for it to be around the 2020 time-frame. Right about now. Obviously there are some real-life things missing – the sheer amount of technology and connection we have now couldn’t be predicted in 1985. But for the most part, it’s entirely believable that a series of events could happen that results in this world of the Republic of Gilead.

I enjoyed the Handmaid’s thought process, her swirling mind as she sat for hours a day in her room, her memories of the past intertwined with the reality of the present, her hope for change, for the future, causing her to overwrite what really happened. It was believable, that she was so trapped because all of her assets had been taken away. She had nothing. She was trapped because she couldn’t trust anyone. Everyone was a spy, everyone could turn her in, have her killed. She was trapped by the thought that if she behaved and did what they wanted that maybe someday she could see her daughter again, if she were alive. As much as you want Offred to run away or rebel, you realize sickeningly that she can’t and were you in her shoes, you wouldn’t either.

But I was expecting more to happen. I was expecting something big, some huge turn of events, some climax. Something. Instead the biggest moments of the book were really just more description of the world they lived in. The Salvaging event, the secret gentlemen’s club. Nothing happened to Offred at the Club – that was just the place where she got more information about the world. Nothing happened with her nighttime rendevous with the Commander – that was just where she reminisced about things she could no longer have and puzzled at why the Commander was doing what he was doing.

I wanted something to happen, and just when it was about to – the book literally ended.

I don’t know how they made a TV show out of this. They must be using the book as the setup, to set the stage, and then fabricating more action. I guess I’ll just have to somehow get Hulu and watch for myself.

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