This was my first experience reading anything by Atwood and, as I often do, I went into the story without knowing anything about it. It was really interesting and engrossing. It had some quirks, but mostly those quirks gave the story character and made it more interesting rather than being annoying or distracting.
The story takes place in the U.S., but women have lost all their freedoms. Childbirth rates have been drastically reduced, and a woman’s only true value is in their ability to have babies. A woman’s role in society is dependent on a combination of her childbearing abilities and whether or not she’s married to a powerful man. If a powerful man has a wife who can’t bear children, he’s given a handmaid to take up the slack. Our main character lived through the transition period. She grew up with freedoms along the lines of what would have existed when the author wrote the book in the 1980’s, but the society began to change when she was an adult. How this change affected our main character, and how the change came about in the first place, is what this book is about.
The story is told in the first-person present tense, by a woman who appears to be recounting her story verbally. She goes off on rabbit trails, she skips back and forth in time, and sometimes she starts to tell us something and then decides she doesn’t want to talk about it and leaves us hanging. Sometimes she tells us something and then says “no, that isn’t actually what happened”, as if she’s caught herself in the act of trying to make things sound better or more dramatic than they were, and then forces herself to be honest. It was really very well done, this written simulation of somebody telling a story out loud.
We’re never explicitly told our main character’s real name, although I thought it might be possible to figure it out by comparing a list of names mentioned at the end of the first chapter against some of the names she refers to in the third person throughout the story. There’s only one name from that list that she never mentions, which therefore may have been her own name, but there are also reasons to believe that may not have been the case.
Because of the nature of the story, with the narrator skipping around between older events and more recent events, I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on in the beginning. The gaps are slowly filled in as the story progresses. As long as it’s written well, that kind of a story-telling device works really well for me. I like it when not everything is revealed in a linear fashion. I enjoy pondering the questions, trying to guess the answers, and then the satisfaction of finally getting those answers.
This is a pretty dark read. A lot of bad things happen, and there isn’t a lot of hope or very many bright spots throughout the story. I want to say it’s not terribly graphic, but there were a couple of scenes that were particularly awful. I don’t think the wording was that explicit, but the author still made it so clear what was happening that my imagination had no problem turning it into something more graphically disturbing. There is also a lot of ambiguity, particularly in how things end. We’re left not really sure how things turned out for our main character, but we have two main possibilities and evidence that could support either conclusion. This would normally annoy me, but really I just thought this whole story was very well done and I enjoyed thinking about what might have happened.
If anybody else reads this for the first time, make sure you don’t miss the “historical notes” at the end. They’re fictional notes, and they’re a critical part of the story. I was reading this as an e-book. Normally, when you reach the end of a Kindle book, you get a pop-up recommending other books you might be interested in. There may be some further back matter past that, but the story itself is expected to be over. I got that first pop-up just before the “historical notes”, making me think the story had ended there. Fortunately, I’m in the habit of paging past that first pop-up and at least glancing at the back matter, so I didn’t miss it.
I have to run to work now, but I look forward to reading the reviews from people I follow who have read this once I get back home!