Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Guest Post: Amy of Addicted to Books reviews The Handmaid's Tale

During the Dystopia Challenge, Amy of Addicted to Books told me how much she loves dystopian fiction, and how she's looking forward to reading The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. I invited her to review it on my blog and here's her reaction.

[Blurb from Amazon: In a startling departure from her previous novels (Lady Oracle, Surfacing), respected Canadian poet and novelist Atwood presents here a fable of the near future. In the Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States, far-right Schlafly/Falwell-type ideals have been carried to extremes in the monotheocratic government. The resulting society is a feminist's nightmare: women are strictly controlled, unable to have jobs or money and assigned to various classes: the chaste, childless Wives; the housekeeping Marthas; and the reproductive Handmaids, who turn their offspring over to the "morally fit" Wives. The tale is told by Offred (read: "of Fred"), a Handmaid who recalls the past and tells how the chilling society came to be.]

"I honestly did not enjoy reading this book. I disliked more than I liked. I came into reading it with huge expectations and was sorely disappointed.

"It was extremely confusing and I almost needed to read the summary of the book to began to understand. I have to say, once you mildly get the gist of it, you realize how insane it is. The type of society depicted in The Handmaid's Tale is, I wouldn't say probable, but still frightening to imagine.

"It started out boring, and I kept hoping it would get better... but it never did. I didn't like how she was making the point that all Christians are hypocritical bastards. Yes, some are, but people are human. I just felt like she was zeroing in on this one religion when the fact it, the majority of Christians are tolerant, kind people. So that's my main problem with the book.

"Overall, The Handmaid's Tale is way overrated. It is not light in the least. Do NOT read it if you're looking to be entertained or excited about the book, like I was. While it is very intelligent and it certainly makes you think (perhaps it makes you scratch your head more than think), it's not exactly interesting. Finally, I would not recommend this to teens, unless you are highly mature for your age. Heck! Even I didn't comprehend much of it. :-D"

I'm so bummed you didn't enjoy this one Amy! It's several years since I've read it but I do know I found it intriguing and enjoyable. You're right, probably not for teens because it's a tad "literary", ie. the ending is bizarre and Offred doesn't even introduce herself properly until halfway through the book.

In my opinion there's no shame in reading summaries or critiques of books in order to understand them. I do it all the time! Some writers are just too damn clever for their own good. But I find that it's worth going in pursuit of a little understanding, because when it does click, it's such a good feeling.

If Atwood calls the Republic of Gilead "Christian", I don't think she's drawing direct comparison between the Christianity of her fictional world and the Christianity of today. As I remember it, everything in Gilead is a warped, unhealthy version of what it is (and could someday be) in this world--like English Socialism in Nineteen Eighty-four, which isn't socialism at all, but totalitarianism. Who's read this book recently? Does this sound right?

As I said it's been a long time since I've read it and the film version has wiped most of the book from my memory. The film you might find more palatable--heroics and romance, and a neatly tied-up ending, but it also keeps the main messages of the book. As I remember it. But again. It's been so long.

You've prompted me to read it again, Amy, and have a good think about it while I do!

Offred and Nick in the film adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale. Nick is played by Aiden Quinn, whom I adore and looks rather like my boyfriend! I'm a sucker for a good set of cheek bones and some curly Irish hair.


  1. Somehow all of the negative things said about this book have inspired me to read it.
    I do love dystopian fiction, though, as well as Margaret Atwood, so perhaps I will end up loving it.

  2. Interesting post. Strangely, I always like to read about why people don't like a book that I personally love. My mother gave me 'The Handmaid's Tale' to read on holiday when I was fourteen or fifteen, and I loved it to bits. So much so that I've reread it about five times, and my undergrad dissertation harped on about it for *thousands* of words.

    "As I remember it, everything in Gilead is a warped, unhealthy version of what it is (and could someday be) in this world" - totally agree. Actually, I can imagine that there are some women in this world *now* living very similar lives to Offred.

    What I do appreciate is that although Amy didn't like the book, she has clearly had a strong reaction to it. I think it deserves a strong reaction!

  3. This is one of my favorite books. I think it's difficult (or can be, for some), but I didn't find it all that confusing. And I think she hit on something when she said "The type of society depicted in The Handmaid's Tale is, I wouldn't say probable, but still frightening to imagine." I think this is the best aspect of the book, because though it won't likely (hopefully) happen, it is believable, and therefore so much scarier. It's a book about extremism, and we live in a time of extremists. I think Atwood dealt with it brilliantly. Scary and awesome.

  4. This is one of my good friend's favorite books, and I've always been meaning to read it. Thanks for presenting both sides of the spectrum, although I think that I will still try to read it one day!

  5. While I appreciate Amy's viewpoint, I don't think The Handmaid's Tale is meant to be taken literally - the role of 'Christianity' is just to symbolise the danger of an excess in religion (including political religion, like totalitarianism). It happens to be that 'Christianity' is the religion we perhaps most identify with in the Western world, so I believe that's why it was used.
    I also think it could be an Young Adult novel, but only for a certain type of Young Adult - it's more focused upon the point of philosophy than on an exciting ride or a vampire romance, for example (not that there's anything wrong with either of those two things).
    I don't think it's necessarily difficult to understand but I suppose if you have certain expectations of the book being a type of book because of its 'dystopian' label and you've only read YA 'dystopian' novels in the past. I think I would also caution here though, that an 'exciting' world isn't necessarily what dystopia is - in most of the time it's not. If you think of Utopia in philosophy as the existence of some ideal place, and 'Dystopia' being the opposite, then the most ideal place wouldn't be the most adventurous one where love exists in any form. It would be a desolate, depressing place.

    I also consider the oppression of women, the main focus of the book, to be entirely believable and entirely probable in today's, even yesterday's, definitely tomorrow's world.

    that's my two cents! :)

  6. Ooh, fatastic reactions! Yes, I certainly agree Lauren and Aimee, women in some places today are living a life similar to the one depicted in THT. Viewing women as baby machines always creeps me out. For example, a classified in yesterday's paper in Darwin that a friend drew my attention to: "Wanted--1 reproductive female, no single mothers."

    "Female"?? Makes her sound like a frigging farm animal! I mean, I get there's a woman shortage up there, but jeez!

  7. For fun, here's the Book-in-a-minute version of The Handmaid's Tale:


    I've got a name, but I won't ever tell it to you.


    I get to do Offred once a month, but I'd rather play Scrabble with her instead.


    I don't even get to play Scrabble with her. That sucks.




    Ofglen is dead.

    (There is a good speculative fiction story going until the END, which is INANE and LITERARY, because it is ILLEGAL for a work of LITERATURE to have CLOSURE.)


    Hehe, yes, Illegal :)

    It's a hilarious site. Here's the URL.

  8. Oh, bummer. I love this book! Another dystopia by Atwood is Oryx and Crake. Anyone read that one? I'd be curious if it's an Atwood style issue or this particular book...

    Kelly at yannabe.com

  9. I also read THE HANDMAIDS TALE as a teen and loved it. But then in HS, I mostly read classics so it wasn't much of a stretch. I still have it on my shelf actually...so maybe I'll pick it up and read it again.