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.
In 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