Review: The Testaments

At long last, after years of thinking of The Handmaid’s Tale as a stand-alone novel, after months of anticipation for its sudden sequel, after days of reading delays and blogging delays (oops), it’s time to talk about Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. I won’t spoil anything from either book, but I’m going to assume that if you’re here, you’ve probably read The Handmaid’s Tale or at least have some idea of what it’s about.

I read this out of my own interest in Atwood’s writing and her portrayal of Gilead, but it was also No. 8/13 on the Booker Prize longlist for me, and 2/6 on the shortlist.

thetestamentsIn the novel, fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, Aunt Lydia secretly pens an account of the horrifying trials she faced during the birth of Gilead, the questionable choices she made from her position of leadership in the aftermath, and her own solution to the problem of female oppression in the former United States. Interwoven with her narrative are the testimonies of two girls experiencing major life changes at that same time- one who grew up in Gilead under the Aunts’ teachings, and one raised in Canada amidst protests and outrage for conditions across the border. These threads, of course, weave together with time.

“Gilead is a slippery place: accidents happen frequently. Someone has already written my funeral eulogy, it goes without saying. I shiver: whose feet are walking on my grave?”

It’s finally happened: I’ve actually disliked a Margaret Atwood book. But before I get into the negatives, I’d like to say that I do think The Handmaid’s Tale is well worth the read even for those who choose to opt out of picking up this sequel, and also that I think this is a book that will work better for many readers than it did for me. Should you read The Testaments? Picture it this way:

The end of The Handmaid’s Tale is a door slammed shut. The narrative ends at a crucial moment that is either very good or very bad for the main character, but before telling us which, Atwood locks that door and walks away, with the truth standing on one side and the reader stuck firmly on the other, left to decide for themselves where the story goes next. Surprisingly, The Handmaid’s Tale: A Graphic Novel gives the reader a foothold, propping that door open just enough to offer certain implications, certain glimpses, into What Happens Next. There’s a big nod in The Testaments to the graphic novel’s final sequence. But ultimately, The Testaments throws that closed door wide open. Whether you’ll appreciate this sequel largely depends on whether you’re a reader who enjoyed imagining your own final solution when that door slammed, or whether you’re a reader with a lot of burning questions, pounding your fists on the door and wanting nothing left to uncertainty. It’s a choice each reader will have to make for themselves, rather than a flat verdict.

Because while The Testaments follows three new perspectives, we do find out here what happened to Offred.  Not every step of the rest of her life, but the general outline. This is going to satisfy a lot of curious readers, and alienate others.

Another divisive element is the fact that The Testaments is very much a book of its time. Where The Handmaid’s Tale is meant to horrify and frighten, its sequel is meant to empower and uplift. It’s not a book full of sunshine and happiness, but it tends toward female hope and perseverance in a way that its predecessor doesn’t. If this sounds like a tonal shift that interests you, odds are you’ll probably enjoy this more than I did.

But while I think opinions on whether this is a “good” sequel are going to vary wildly person to person, I think an argument can certainly be made that The Testaments is not Atwood’s best book. There are undeniably moments of brilliance in the writing, and Aunt Lydia is such a complex and intriguing character. I actually kept picturing her as Margaret Atwood while reading, though I think that has more to do with the fact that Aunt Lydia was the only character here who felt like she could have been a real person to me than any actual personality similarities (I do not know Atwood personally, obviously). For me, the pros ended there.

The cons were numerous. First, though there were some great lines, more often it felt like Atwood had lost all faith in her readers being able to pull meaning from her writing. Details are spelled out at an excruciating level:

“We joined a herd of other women: I describe it as a herd because we were being herded.”

“They were supposed to teach us how to act as mistresses of high-ranking households. I say “act” in a dual sense: we were to be actresses on the stages of our future houses.”

This lack of subtlety is not limited to the writing style itself; where The Handmaid’s Tale allows small plot details to speak for much larger problems in Gilead, The Testaments foreshadows it’s action-packed plot to such an extent that absolutely every major event and revelation actually feels anticlimactic. Additionally, the plot itself is such a standard dystopian arc that even without hints it would likely feel utterly predictable for anyone familiar with the genre, and everything comes so conveniently, impossibly easy to our heroines that I found it failed to even entertain at a basic level. Daisy and Agnes, the two younger perspectives, seem completely contrived and practically lifeless in the way that they react (or fail to react) to deaths, difficult tasks, and having their lives upturned. The format of the novel requires these women to look back on their experiences from some future point, but there’s no real attempt made at reflection, leaving even the structure feeling arbitrary and unrealized. Where is the crafting expertise Atwood utilized in The Blind Assassin? Where is the wacky, compelling plotting from The Heart Goes Last? Where is the care with which she created a new story from a beloved classic as in Hag-Seed? None of those skills seem to have carried over into The Testaments.

But you can take those opinions with a grain of salt, as many readers do seem to be loving this return to Gilead, or at least finding it wildly entertaining. Something that bothers me more than plot or characters, (something that I began to address in my review of The Handmaid’s Tale: A Graphic Novel based on its ending, which was built upon in The Testaments), is the way that this change of direction from The Handmaid’s Tale even seems to subvert the original message of that book. The Handmaid’s Tale is cautionary- it’s meant to alarm readers into considering what might happen if we grow too complacent (this is aside from the fact that the details of The Handmaid’s Tale come from real problems women have already faced or are facing elsewhere in the world, but that’s another matter); The Testaments, with all its hope, says, “there’s no need to worry, even if things go wrong everything will turn out all right in the end.” It’s a comforting theme, maybe an inspiring one in some circumstances, but it seems to speak directly against the “let’s not let this happen in the first place” spirit of that first novel. Gone is the outrage that these circumstances might affect even one woman- in fact, outrage isn’t much of a factor in this novel at all. The optimism of its final chapter may even suggest that we might benefit from our world going so awry, because it would give us the opportunity to rebuild a country that seems already cracked and broken. Politically, it’s a perfect fit for 2019, and probably has something better to say about the ultimate fate of female oppression than The Handmaid’s Tale, but for me the message here just wasn’t as strong and didn’t quite ring true as a answer to the brilliant novel that precedes it.

Though this worked as neither a sequel nor a story in its own right for me, I’m not entirely mystified by the fact that it is having more success among other readers. Atwood is a big name in the publishing world for a reason, and The Testaments is not entirely devoid of merit. It is never my intent when I write a negative review to scare off interested readers, and I didn’t find this to be in any way an offensive book- just a book that completely failed to live up to its potential. I hope that it won’t win the Booker Prize next month… but I also hope that if you’re picking this one up, you have more fun with it than I did. Every book deserves to find its audience.

“Aunt Vidala said that best friends led to whispering and plotting and keeping secrets, and plotting and secrets led to disobedience to God, and disobedience led to rebellion, and girls who were rebellious became women who were rebellious, and a rebellious woman was even worse than a rebellious man because rebellious men became traitors, but rebellious women became adulteresses.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I don’t want to think that I would’ve been against any possible sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, despite my appreciation for its ambiguous ending, but this really wasn’t it for me. I’m not surprised at its commercial success so far, but I am a bit surprised it’s doing so well with the Booker judges. If by some chance this book wins, I will believe to the end of my days that it passed on the strength of the original novel that should have been worthy of a Booker win, rather than on its own substance. But I suppose I should close before I get any more petty. I’m glad I gave this one a chance, but sad that it didn’t live up to expectations. Maybe next time, Atwood.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

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26 thoughts on “Review: The Testaments”

  1. I find the handmaid’s tale thought provoking, but I don’t enjoy Atwood’s style much. For me, it’s over literary. I’ve got used to the idea of Aunt Lydia as a horrible person so would find it difficult to revise, I guess.

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    1. I can understand that criticism- her style usually works for me but I do think she tries too hard at loftiness sometimes.
      I think the backstory and perspective Atwood gives Aunt Lydia here is really the most engaging part of the novel, precisely because we expect her to be evil; she still is, to an extent, but her motivations also make more sense. She’s not necessarily a better person here, just more layered.

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  2. I loved the Aunt Lydia perspective, and was less enamored with the two teenage girls. It felt very YA and the writing wasn’t as strong. I thought it was really entertaining, but it also wrapped up a bit too neatly. I never really needed that answer about what was left open-ended at the end of Handmaid’s Tale. I didn’t think it was terrible but I’m surprised it’s getting so many award nominations.

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    1. I completely agree with all of those points! Aunt Lydia was really the saving grace for me here, everything else was a bit disappointing. There’s nothing seriously wrong with this book, but it failed to satisfy on so many levels. I never felt like I needed a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale either, but I was hoping at least to enjoy this story for its own sake. Sadly that didn’t happen for me, but I’m glad you had more fun with it!

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  3. Great review, Emily! This is so thorough and really touches on all my concerns. I’ll certainly still be reading it, but am glad to be going in with lowered expectations. It will be interesting to see how I get along with it. 🙂

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    1. Thank you!! I’m glad I didn’t turn you off from it, it really is an interesting book whether it works or no. I hope you’ll have a better time with it than I did, and I’ll be very curious to hear your thoughts when you get to it!

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  4. Fantastic review! A sequel that fails to live up to its predecessor, and contradicts the very message of that original novel sounds incredibly frustrating. And what a shame Atwood seems to be pandering to her audience. I mean, ““We joined a herd of other women: I describe it as a herd because we were being herded.” … Beyond anything else, that’s just terrible writing.

    I loved reading your thoughts! Perhaps I’ll give his a shot one day once the hype calms down, but I’m certainly in no hurry.

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    1. Thanks!! Unfortunately this one missed the mark for me in almost every way. I’ve never disliked Atwood’s writing before so I really wasn’t expecting that, but there were definitely some cringe-worthy moments here.
      I do think it’s an interesting read despite its failings though, perhaps even because of them to some extent. It’s fascinating to compare how different this is from The Handmaid’s Tale (which I think I’ve gained some extra appreciation for after this experience!). I’d love to see what you think whenever you get around to it, of course!

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      1. Ah yeah, I could see it going either way- luckily for me the things I didn’t like about Testaments reinforced what I did like about Handmaid’s! It’s such a pity when one lesser book in a series can ruin the whole set for a reader.

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  5. Wonderful review! This absolutely confirmed that I will not be reading this any time soon, or ever (my own personal dislike of The Handmaid’s Tale aside). Ambiguous endings are one of my favorite things, and I love your metaphor about Atwood using The Testaments to throw open a door that probably should have stayed closed if you’re the sort of reader who doesn’t like to have everything wrapped up in a neat bow at the end of a story. And especially with The Handmaid’s Tale – it was never the kind of story that suited a neat ending, imo.

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    1. Thank you! If you didn’t like The Handmaid’s Tale, I can’t imagine you’d enjoy this one much either. I do think the way readers react to the ambiguity of The Handmaid’s Tale will be a major determining factor in whether or not they’ll appreciate this sequel- those who want the answers will probably love having them, and those who don’t will probably see them as a flaw. Personally, I wish Atwood had used this plot as the script for the final season of the TV show if this is the direction she wanted to take the story, and let the original novel stand.

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  6. Great review! I’m not a huge fan of Margaret Atwood’s work in general but I have been curious as to what prompted her to write a sequel now to a book that, in my opinion, seemed quite complete. It’s interesting that she takes a more hopeful approach in The Testaments. I’m curious too about the Canadian perspective, because I find we watch American politics with a sort of added horror, wondering if we’ll be far behind (and especially right now as we have our own election going on.)

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    1. Thank you! I was also quite satisfied with the original novel, and like many others, suspect the success of the current Handmaid’s Tale TV series prompted Atwood’s return to this story. It is definitely interesting to compare the two novels, at the very least.
      The way Gilead is perceived and reacted to by the Canadians in this book is indeed one of its more interesting elements. Though some characters see the border between the countries as rather malleable and do what they can to help, for others there was a very hard line between Gilead and normalcy. The Handmaid’s Tale was so focused on an inside experience that the outside perspective was refreshing here. The Canadian MC seemed very poorly characterized, but her point of view was nevertheless interesting. I’d be curious to see your thoughts if you ever pick it up!

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  7. During one horrible year, my husband and I read several books of utter societal doom, so I’m good for now. We read 1984, Brave New World, Animal Farm, and Only Ever Yours, which made me so angry that I couldn’t get over it for days, despite Only Ever Yours being a YA novel that I am told is similar to Handmaid’s Tale. The door is DEFINITELY shut on that one, which made me grieve for the character. However, as I mentioned in a previous post, 1984 subtly shifts verb tenses, which is meant to indicate a slightly more hopeful ending.

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    1. Oh wow, that does sound like an intense reading year! I’ve read most of those, but not all, and certainly not all in a concentrated dose- Only Ever Yours is on my TBR, mainly because I liked another book from the author; it’s good to know not to necessarily expect another great read from her automatically.
      But if you are more partial to hopeful endings, The Testaments might really be more your style, it’s very much a book of redemption and optimism. You might also appreciate Offred’s cameo in this one. Personally I find those harsh societal doom outlooks very powerful, and was disappointed to see this one abandon that formula; it was very much not the book for me, but I think it will be quite appreciable for another set of readers.

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      1. I don’t want a book to end positively just for the sake of it, though my little scaredy heart wants things to be safe and okay. I’ve heard O’Niell’s other books are excellent, including one about a high school girl who is rather promiscuous and then raped, so no one believes her.

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      2. Ah yes, that’s true. It was a bit too much positivity for my taste.

        And funnily enough, that is the one I’ve read! Such a well-written and haunting book. I guess they can’t all be winners though.

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    1. Honestly it seemed like The Testaments was trying to be more of a mystery/thriller than dystopian, you might like it a lot more than I did! If you’re not sure, I would still recommend the Handmaid’s Tale graphic novel, which gives a good introduction to the world of Gilead and hardly takes any time to read. And since the ending of that one starts leading in the direction of The Testaments, I think that would give you an indication of whether you’re interested in continuing with the sequel. But it’s totally up to you of course, which books you read or not! If you do pick either of them up, I hope you enjoy!

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  8. Great review and I love your critique. You make very insightful observations about the way the sequel now can even be viewed as going against the very message that the original story wanted to send out. Perhaps, I loved The Handmaid’s Tale precisely for its subtlety and it “cautionary” element, as you put it so astutely. It seems that The Testaments could not after all escape the issue that haunts many sequels – how not to meddle with the original story so as to make that original story viewed as something else than it was.

    For me, the story in The Handmaid’s Tale “concluded”, even if uncertainly, and that is why I never wanted to read this sequel no matter how good it is. I am even afraid to read it since I do not want it to revise my concepts and understandings of certain themes and events in the original story. Yes, that means I do not want to know what happens to Offred! (so I hope no one will ever tell me) 🙂

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    1. I completely agree with your stance! I’ve always been so impressed with Atwood’s writing, so I was holding out hope that she’d do justice to the original novel with the addition of The Testaments, but sadly felt that it fell into too many crowd-pleasing traps. I’m keeping Handmaid’s Tale and Testaments very separate in my mind, because I did appreciate that first book more and in the end I think it stands better alone. I would’ve rather not learned anything further about Offred either. It seems you’re better off steering clear of this sequel, based on the elements you appreciated from the first novel!

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