Gina's Reviews > The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
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Apr 05, 10

bookshelves: 2010, borrowed, fiction, general-fiction
Read from March 22 to 23, 2010

** spoiler alert ** Because of the subject matter and the fact that this is generally acknowledged to be A Very Important Book, I feel a little defensive not rating this book highly. Like someone is going to yell at me and ask me why I hate women, that this kind of thing happens every day around the world, etc. I KNOW. I read that Margaret Atwood used to carry around a folder of newspaper clippings, just to prove that she hadn't made anything up, and I believe her. Iran under the Taliban, Romania under Ceausescu, genital mutilation, countless instances of blaming the rape victim...the list is like 20 miles long. Raising awareness of these issues=good. But I just wasn't very impressed with this book.

I bristled a bit when I read the blurb on the back from the Houston Chronicle: "Atwood takes many trends which exist today and stretches them to their logical and chilling conclusions..." I had visions of Glenn Beck standing at his blackboard, using chalk circles to stretch trends to their "logical" and "chilling" conclusions. Clearly this book is on the opposite end of the political spectrum from Beck, but I'm weary of doomsday scenarios all the same.

I think that my main problem with the book is that the details surrounding the whole regime change, etc. and subsequent oppression were so unclear that I couldn't see how it could be considered a logical conclusion. "Something" war-like involving toxins and stuff happened and some crazy ultra-fringe "Christian" group took over, and suddenly women (a giant chunk of the US workforce) are used almost exclusively for housekeeping and baby-making. So the US economy must be down the tubes, what with this major upheaval. Why hasn't the rest of the world collapsed, since it is so closely intertwined with the US? Offred sees some tourists from Japan, which seems to be doing just fine, but isn't the US one of their largest trading partners? Also, the wives knit scarves for the "Angels on the front lines." Who are they fighting and where? Since the toxins have messed up everyone's fertility and the birth rate, why are they using old men to try to impregnate women? Did all the rational thinkers die?

Normally I give this sort of thing a pass in a novel, since it is fiction, after all. But to me, the reason a dystopian novel is so chilling is that it extrapolates from current events and you can envision something like it happening. I couldn't make the connection here and this book left so many unanswered questions that I was distracted from the larger themes.

So if I suspend my disbelief and just read this novel as the story of one woman's experience in a horribly oppressive society, I still don't get it. Offred is so disconnected that I wondered at times if we were going to find out that all the women were doped into submission. I realize that it was intended to be seen as a coping mechanism, but it makes for pretty dull, unsympathetic characters. Every ten pages or so we learn that she was really happy in her previous life and she really misses her sort of generic husband and no-name daughter. Ho hum. The relationship we actually learn the most about is her friendship with the stereotypically lecherous butch lesbian Moira.

I'm really glad that this wasn't the first book I read by Margaret Atwood because I don't think I would have read any others.
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