“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

This month’s selection for the new book group I’ve started, which reads books with themes of religion and myth, is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. When I mention this, the almost universal response is, “Wow, I haven’t read that book in years!” That was the case for me, too. I probably read it in the late 80’s, and again in the mid 90’s. I remembered broad strokes, but not particulars. I wondered if it would hold up. Did it, ever.

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium…in the army cots that had been set up in rows, with spaces between so we could not talk. We had flannelette sheets, like children’s, and army-issue blankets, old ones that still said U.S.We folded our clothes neatly and laid them on the stools at the ends of the beds. The lights were turned down but not out. Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled; they had electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts.

The narrator, whose real name is never revealed, describes a near-future in which fertility rates have declined, largely due to nuclear fallout after an earthquake. The country is now a repressive theocracy, in which Biblical verses are deployed to justify awful acts. Bit by bit, the narrator mixes details of her past and the history that brought about her present. Atwood is such a skillful writer that I never noticed the jumping around in time and scene. Pieces of the picture are added bit by bit, as in the above paragraph, and the tension grows as the narrator’s present situation becomes more charged.

I found this book difficult to put down, and resented the things–meals, sleep, my husband and children–that required me to do so. Even though I remembered the ending, I didn’t remember the details, and I could barely wait to take in the particulars again. When I finally reached the conclusion, which somehow managed to be both unsettling and satisfying, I felt in awe of the skill and power with which Atwood had created such a rich and terrible future. Frightening and timely, more than 25 years after it was published it still gives me much to ponder.

6 Responses to ““The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood”

  1. Amy Says:

    I had just started re-reading this when you posted, and at first I struggled a little. Not sure why. But then it “clicked” and boom, I’m 2/3 of the way done and will easily finish in the next day or so. Like you said, it’s now hard to put down.

  2. Steph Says:

    I read this when I was 16 years old and had vehemently declared I hated Margaret Atwood. My English teacher at the time suggested I try this one for my independent studies project that year and I liked it MUCH better. I pretty much remember zilch about it, however, so I think it’s time for a re-read. I recently picked up a second-hand Everyman’s copy of it, which seems fortuitous…

  3. girldetective Says:

    Steph, that everyman’s edition seems to be the only one that amazon sells, weird, right? Also, it makes me wonder if they’d ever pick a cover of a man sitting comfortably at home; I bet the men’s covers show them out in the world looking tough and remote.

    I recommend reading it again, and hope we’ll have a bunch of people chatting about it on Goodreads.

  4. Kate Says:

    This review reminds me a bit of Cloud Atlas, which I just finished. I think I might have to reread it as well.

  5. girldetective Says:

    I highly recommend having another go at Handmaid’s Tale. Its ecological setting is eerily timely. Cloud Atlas was the book the Biblioracle recommended for my husband, and which I’ve been meaning to read for ages, as a friend of mine loves it, and I loved Black Swan Green. Our library has a wait list of 30+ people for it! (So clearly we’re going to have to buy it.)

    I didn’t go shopping at Ms. Erdrich’s store. These came from Half Price Books, so I’m guilty of not having my money go to the author (not an issue in the case of Wodehouse), but I am practicing good ecology by reusing, right? Plague of Doves was on my radar before and has now moved up. I’ve read Love Medicine, Antelope’s Wife (Shadow Tag is sadder than that? What about sadder than Alison McGhee’s Rainlight?) and I read Crown of Columbus as well as A Yellow Raft.. which a friend contends she wrote, but my favorite, thus far, since I’ve got much more to delve into, is The Blue Jay’s Dance, her memoir of early motherhood, which may no longer be in print. In interesting companion to the raucousness of Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions.

  6. kate Says:

    I’m going to have to look up The Blue Jay’s Dance now. And yes, there were/are many rumors about how much she wrote Yellow Raft.

    I would be very, very interested in what you think about Cloud Atlas. I had a funny experience with it–I didn’t like the first five pages of each section, thinking, “this isn’t for me, I’m bored,” etc. And then, suddenly, about 10 pages in, I couldn’t put the book down and was upset when the section ended without conclusion.

    I was mostly jealous that you have the chance to go to her store, rather than assuming you do. :)

    And I don’t know just how sad Shadow Tag is, but it apparently hit my friend’s this-is-insanely-sad button. Now I’m going to have to read it to see HOW sad we’re talking.