The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood review

Hey! I thought I’d post another review today since I just recently finished Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Between the book and the current TV series I imagine a lot of you already know the plot so I will try and keep the summary brief. The novel is set in a dystopian future where we follow Offred, the eponymous Handmaid. Handmaids are a group of women whose sole purpose is to breed, and they are passed on from family to family in the hope they will have a child. During the novel Offred is placed in the house of the nameless Commander, his wife Serena Joy, their ‘Marthas’ (housekeepers) and chauffeur Nick. Whilst we learn of Offred’s current predicament we also see flashbacks to her previous life, and the changes from our society to this new one.

After hearing so many people rave about both the book and the show I had to pick it up. I found the concept really interesting, particularly after reading Naomi Alderman’s The Power. I think both authors dealt with similar themes very well, in particular I liked how they both used the symbolism of the female body to highlight gender inequality. In Alderman’s novel the bodies of the women empower them, while in The Handmaid’s Tale the female body is used as a means of subjugation. Offred and other Handmaids are reduced to mere bodies, and Atwood uses the word ‘vessel’ which sums it up perfectly. It was interesting to compare and contrast the two novels, especially as they have those similar themes.

But (and I feel really bad writing this) The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t live up to the hype. It has a lot of aspects that I usually like in a novel; slow build up, ambiguous characters, an unreliable narrator and all set in a dystopian world. Yet I struggled to get through it, especially the first half of the novel. I couldn’t connect to Offred at all. I never saw much in the way of character development- she was either quietly rebellious or really passive, almost accepting her fate. She didn’t seem to grow in the story, and remained flitting between the two emotions throughout the plot. I also found some of the secondary characters to be quite one-note. Serena Joy seemed like such a stereotype, the jealous wife who hates the ‘other woman’. That seemed to be her main function in the story and I wished Atwood had given her more depth. I understand Offred is our narrator so we see everything through her, but I just feel more could’ve been done with Serena. Similarly, I wasn’t keen on the portrayal of Nick. I never understood Offred’s fascination with him as he seemed bland to me, and he ultimately appeared more like a plot device than an actual character. It felt like he was there because he had to be there. The only characters I was actually interested in was the Commander and Moira, Offred’s friend, probably because they were allowed to develop. I enjoyed not knowing exactly how I felt about them, and how I thought I understood them, then Atwood would add a new development or twist and I would be unsure again.

While I would’ve liked more character development, I really didn’t need the ‘Historical Notes’ at the end. That section felt unnecessary, I felt we were being told a summary of what we had already read. It was quite condescending and gimmicky. Overall I was disappointed with The Handmaid’s Tale. Perhaps if I had ignored all the hype and went into it not knowing anything about it, I might have enjoyed it more. Certainly, as I said, it contained many ideas and narratives that I normally like. Instead the word ‘dreary’ springs to mind, in both plot and execution. However, I know I’m in the minority as I know plenty of people who like this book so maybe I missed something.

The Handmaid’s Tale is published by Penguin. For more info: https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/1032806/the-handmaid-s-tale/

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