CBR5 Review #21: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Why I Read It: It’s one of those books that’s been on my “have-to-read” list forever.

My Rating: 5 stars

Summary: Set in Gilead, a dystopian/futuristic version of the United States, this is the story of Offred, who now occupies one of society’s established social castes: the Handmaids. The country is now run by a Christian theocracy that has re-imposed Puritan ideals on society, so although this is a recognizably modern culture, it is an ultra-conservative, paternalistic, and racist/homophobic one. Offred recounts her own story as a Handmaid, interspersing it with glimpses of her old life–a life that is very much recognizable as our own. Through her, we come to understand how society shifted so drastically, and the effects of this on society’s members, especially women.

My Review: Wow. This book was phenomenal, and one of those books that truly deserves its designation as a classic. For some reason I was expecting it to be drier, or to feel dated, but it’s completely gripping and feels incredibly fresh and modern, despite having been written almost thirty years ago. It’s terrifying and sad and beautifully written, and–and this is the mark of really, really good dystopian literature–it feels real. Some of the lead-up to the government takeover by the ultra-conservative Christian group now in power could have been inspired by events from the last couple of years, and the bits of Offred’s old life that we see are so clearly grounded in the world that we inhabit now. The possibility of something like this actually happening makes the novel even scarier, and I couldn’t put it down. I loved how Atwood reveals bits and pieces of the world slowly, often dropping shocking ideas into dialogue and narrative very casually, and I thought it was much more effective than having pages of exposition on what the new world is like and how it got to be that way.

Offred is a very relatable narrator, too, and it was a smart choice to have her be (before the takeover, at least) a normal, average woman. She represents the clashing of the old world with the new well–although she conforms to the new societal standards of behavior imposed on her, she is able to separate herself and observe them from her old perspective, making the narrative that much more chilling. The pain of her loss (of her old life, her family, and of her independence) is clearly felt, and I was really invested in her story.

This is a book I really wish I’d had to read for a class in college, because it’s so ripe for discussion. You can analyze it from so many perspectives, and there are so many themes/motifs to dissect. I kept getting ideas for papers when I was reading it–this would have been perfect in a gender studies class, for example.

The ending (the last chapter or so) is a little odd and I didn’t like it much, but that was just about my only complaint, and it didn’t take away from my overall enjoyment of the book.

Should you read it? Absolutely. This book is fantastic.

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