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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

Reviews: The Handmaid’s Tale Graphic Novel and Mary’s Monster

I read two graphic novels of sorts (one is very hard to categorize) last week, so here’s a two-for-the-price-of-one set of reviews!

 

thehandmaidstalegraphicnovelThe Handmaid’s Tale: A Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood, art and adaptation by Renee Nault – 4 stars

I picked up this adaptation of Atwood’s beloved modern classic as a quick refresher before diving into The Testaments (which I’ll hopefully be wrapping up and reviewing in a couple of days).

Initially, I realized that what I remembered most from the novel was the world of Gilead and all of its terrible rules of operation; I wasn’t quite as clear on the specific characters or events. The more I read, the more this pattern made sense, as the plot of this novel actually matters very little- it’s a vehicle Atwood (and here Nault) uses to explore the extremes of this political scenario. Our main character, Offred, isn’t special, she’s just the face chosen to show the reader the “norm” for the women of this society. Every other person that she interacts with- be they Handmaids, Marthas, Wives, Commanders, Guardians, Angels, Aunts, etc. are also singular faces representing a greater majority. They’re Gilead stereotypes. The power of the novel comes from the fact that for the reader, the revelation of every unjust detail of the  Handmaid’s existence is an event in itself. This is precisely why I wasn’t ready for a full reread of the actual novel yet- without its power to surprise with rampant sexism and very thorough slavery of women, The Handmaid’s Tale loses a substantial amount of its power.

With the graphic novel, excellent visual art made for a somewhat new experience with the familiar story. The colors used are bold and striking, with a tendency toward bright red, the style stark but not sparse. I thought Nault did a wonderful job of keeping each face unique and recognizable amidst a sea of matching uniforms. The art is understated but elegant.

The language also feels very true to Atwood’s original work; it’s been a little while since I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale so I can’t swear to Nault’s words being lifted directly from Atwood’s pages, but they gave me that impression. It’s a very faithful adaptation in content and spirit.

“Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse, for some.”

Well, faithful until the end. Throughout most of this read, it was a perfect 5 star experience; I couldn’t remember why I had only rated The Handmaid’s Tale at 4 stars and was fully prepared to love this graphic rendering even more than the original. But the last three pages take this narrative a step farther than the novel’s perfect, ambiguous ending, lending a hint of softness to what is otherwise a very bleak speculation of how far unchecked misogyny could go in the US. While I appreciate the framing concept behind those last three pages, and even marked a great quote from within them, they suggest a light at the end of the tunnel. This cautionary tale of what could (and does, in some places) happen to women in a world without feminism is buffered here by the closing indicator that no matter how bad things get, justice will win in the end. It seems to go against the entire purpose of the story, in my opinion. (Which is also part of the reason I’m struggling with The Testaments, but I’ll get more into that later.)

So, all in all, a fantastic rendering of a tale for the ages that I’d love to own a copy of someday, though I’d like to pretend the final scene it depicts doesn’t exist.

“As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it, but, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.”

 

marysmonsterMary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created FRANKENSTEIN by Lita Judge – 5 stars

I picked up this barely-categorizable work of art at Callum’s excellent recommendation, after adoring another ode to Shelley’s classic, Winterson’s Frankissstein. My love for Frankenstein grows exponentially the more I learn about Shelley’s real life, which of course is so intricately entwined with the themes of her novel.

“I am not just an unwed girl. / I can choose to forgive. / I can choose to live again, / broken but breathing, / half lover, half pain.”

Though I refer to this one as a graphic novel for ease of drawing on a familiar image, Mary’s Monster is actually a fictionalized account of Mary Shelley’s real life, told through non-rhyming poetry, and accompanied by gorgeous, haunting, black and white drawings. The color scheme reminds us that despite the first-person present-tense narration this story is grounded in the early 19th century. The art is pretty, with soft edges, but it conveys such a depth of pain and sorrow.

The book opens on Mary’s young childhood, and the tone and language put me in mind of YA lit (this impression was probably reinforced by the fact that it was shelved in the YA section at my library); I think this would be appropriate for a teen audience (perhaps English classes that require students to read Frankenstein might benefit from using this as an accompanying text), as long as readers are prepared for how dark a tale this is. As Mary grows up, her life becomes more tragic and complex, and all of her tragedies are caught up in her writing. Though I think I would have loved both Frankenstein and Mary’s Monster as a teen, I do however believe there’s a richer experience that comes from reading both as an adult.

So what is this story? It’s an account of Mary Shelley’s relationship with her eventual husband Percy (Bysshe Shelley) and with her own family, her struggle as a young mother and social outcast, the deaths she sees, and her resilience in the face of seemingly hopeless situations. Plus a lot of Frankenstein symbolism. Author Lita Judge has this to say of the of the book:

“The popular myth is that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was conceived spontaneously on a stormy night in answer to a dare to write a ghost story. That evening did occur, but countless events in Mary’s life before and after that evening played a much greater role in the horror novel’s creation. My story is an attempt to trace the many origins of her genius. It’s a testament to a resilient girl whose imagination, forged by isolation, persecution, and loss, created a new form of storytelling as a means of connecting with the very society that had socially exiled her.” 

I was slow to warm up to this one, but completely won over in the end. I am now in desperate need of a Frankenstein reread.

 

Ironically, it wasn’t until I suddenly remembered and promptly gave up on my goal to read more graphic novels this year that I picked both of these books up on impulse. I really should make a more serious attempt to follow through in 2020, because clearly the genre has a lot to offer. If you’re at all interested in The Handmaid’s Tale or Frankenstein, I can’t recommend these beautiful books highly enough.

Do you have any more graphic novel recommendations for me?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

Welcome, book lovers and aspiring readers! If you’re looking for novels, you’ve come to the right place. Today I want to tell you about Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

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This book had been on my list of books to read for a few years, and I actually read another Margaret Atwood book I’d never heard of before I finally got around to picking this one up, but once I did I read The Handmaid’s Tale from cover to cover in two days. Not a record for me, but it stood out from the leisurely pace I’ve been taking through books lately. What was so great about it? Well…

About this book: Offred, the “Handmaid” of Fred, is the narrator of this futuristic dystopia. Under the reorganized government, Offred’s family was torn apart as they attempted to escape the country–her husband has all but vanished, assumed by Offred to be dead or placed in a new family, while their young daughter was sent to another government-sanctioned family and encouraged to forget her birth parents. Offred herself spent a few months under training of the nun-like Aunts to learn the new rules of propriety and find her place in society as a Handmaid. The Handmaids are a class of fertile women who are paired with childless families and employed for several months with the task of producing offspring for the prominent government husbands to raise with their infertile wives as the Handmaid is swept away to a new household. Failure to support the new government in every possible way results in either death or banishment to the Colonies, where citizens die slowly and with disgrace, removed from society and subject to hard work and poor accommodations. Offred is not allowed to grieve for her past. She is not allowed to use her old name. She is barely allowed to interact with other people, let along make friends or fall in love. But Atwood’s characters never fail to do the unthinkable, the unallowable, and Offred is no exception. She learns inside information from a strange, secret arrangement with Fred, stumbles across an underground network of Handmaid friendships and anti-government efforts, and finds companionship in unlikely places. Anything could go wrong, and if it did, Offred would never be heard from again.

The writing itself: Margaret Atwood is a master of the English language. Although this novel takes place in a future that has little in common with our present systems, Offred’s memories and astute observations give the prose a witty, sarcastic, and occasionally morbid tone, and the commentary on everyday objects and actions is easily relatable and intriguing. With very little knowledge of the contents of The Handmaid’s Tale, I picked up this book primarily because I was interesting in Atwood’s writing style in another book, and I was pleased to find the same quippy remarks from new and distinct characters.I would’ve enjoyed this book even if the plot hadn’t been so fascinating. It certainly had the feel of a modern classic; I have no doubt that The Handmaid’s Tale will persevere through the test of time.

On ambiguity: without giving away any spoilers, I’d like to mention that the ending of this book is possibly the most ambiguous finale I’ve ever read. I’ve grown to love stories with a bit of wiggle room at the end, but I usually don’t have much difficulty in stacking up the evidence and choosing a side.In this book, however, I had absolutely no idea who could be trusted, an it took me days to decide whether I believed Offred was being saved or whisked away to a torturous death.

“The Commander puts his hand to his head. What have I been saying, and to whom, and which one of his enemies has found out? Possibly he will be a security risk, now. I am above him, looking down; he is shrinking. There have already been purges among them, there will be more…The van waits in the driveway, its double doors stand open. The two of them, one on either side now, take me by the elbows to help me in…I have given myself over to the hand of strangers, because it can’t be helped.”

I would never give away the last sentence, but this passage is near the end of the book, and hopefully encourages you to pick up this book to judge for yourself whether Offred’s fate will be favorable…or not. I give 5 of 5 stars for this one, due to the combination of fantastic writing and incredible plot.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you already know you like Margaret Atwood, or are interested in seeing her writing style but don’t like the sound of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s plot, check out Atwood’s new novel, The Heart Goes Last. This one is also futuristic, but the world is entirely different and focuses on members of a society that voluntarily spend half of each year in prison.
  2. If you like reading about crazy dystopian governments and the citizens’ attempts to retain their old identities and freedoms, try George Orwell’s classic, 1984. I was strongly reminded of 1984 while reading The Handmaid’s Tale, although thankfully there were no vicious rats in the Atwood book. If you’ve already read either of these, you’ll probably enjoy the other.

If you have any recommendations for me, I love receiving them! I also appreciate hearing your thoughts on the books I’ve reviewed, whether you’ve already read them, or I’ve helped you decide on a book to add to or cross off you must-read list. Let me know how I’m doing, and in the meantime, I’ll keep the reviews and recommendations coming.

What’s next: I recently discovered the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, and I’m so excited to share with you this intense sci-fi/historical fiction/thriller masterpiece that keeps trying to take over my life. Stay tuned to find out why I’m so conflicted on whether or not to count this series as one of my all-time favorites!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant