First published in 1985, it’s a piece of dystopian speculative fiction where a far right religious sect has taken over America and imposed a theocracy. Women have been stripped of most of their rights, and have been relegated to one of a several “traditional roles”: Wife; “Martha” (a house servant); “Econowife” (assigned to poorer men and expected to perform both wifely & servant duties); “Aunts” (a sort of moral trainer and thought police for women); and “Handmaid” (concubine for the wealthy/powerful). The story is in diary form, and follows an unnamed handmaid as she navigates this new order.
I wanted to like this book, as Atwood has such a fine reputation and this is probably her most popular book. And I suppose I did, in a manner of speaking. As literature, it holds up fairly well. She has a way of phrasing that is both interesting and provocative: She does a wonderful job of capturing the mental and emotional tradeoffs that the oppressed must make just to get out of bed every day and function. “Where I am is not a prison but a privilege, as Aunt Lydia said, who was in love with either/or.”
Where the book struggles is as a dystopia. Granted, it’s not uncommon for these types near-future stories to feel dated once they are removed from their immediate context. 1984, Brave New World, and A Clockwork Orange suffer the same fate. But those classics (at least the first two) did a solid job of setting out what the enemy was, who it is that we, the readers, were supposed to be on the lookout for, what in our world could lead us down such a dark path if we don’t remain vigilant. But Atwood’s villains seem scattershot. Yes, there is scary love affair between religion and politics (think Moral Majority), which in many senses has played out in real life. But there is also some vague environmental catastrophe, a population collapse caused by – uh, something, I wasn’t clear on that – the power of financial institutions, and even the threat from within feminism itself in the cartoonish portrait of the handmaid’s mother.
Some of this is no doubt caused by the constraints of the handmaid’s passive and accommodating personality (which I found infuriating by the way). This is very intentionally not a “strong female lead.” She is not a hero or a revolutionary. I would say that she is supposed to be an everywoman, but she’s not even terribly likeable. She is, however, a survivor. Often in spite of herself.
So…is it an important book? Sure. Is it well written? Most definitely. Will it keep you attention? Yep. But is it good book? Well, it’s not a bad book. It’s just not as good as I hoped.