Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is a feminist dystopian novel set in the near future in the Republic of Gilead, formerly a part of the United States. The narrator of the book is Offred (as in "of Fred" or Fred's woman), who was forced to become a childbearing handmaid of a local Commander. The ruling totalitarian regime has stripped women of essentially all rights and freedoms, with the Wives of Commanders retaining a figurehead role in the household, Marthas relegated to cooking and cleaning, Handmaids to having sex once a month and with luck quickly conceiving and bearing a child, and Aunts training the Handmaids in piety and propriety.

Offred's story is told through narration of current events and flashbacks to the time before the military coup. She had once been the happily married mother of a five-year-old girl. The three of them had tried unsuccessfully to escape to Canada; after that time she never saw her daughter again, and never even learned whether her husband was still alive. Having proven her fertility she was categorized as a handmaid. As Offred, she was on her second posting; three unsuccessful attempts to conceive would leave her an "unwoman" and fit only to be shipped off to the Colonies for a short but brutal life of hard labor.

The book is compelling and interesting, actually an easy read, but it lacks the force of Nineteen Eighty-Four. I appreciated the different perspective the feminist angle provides, but it doesn't stick with me the way that Orwell's masterpiece did. I'd still recommend it pretty broadly, and I plan to read more by Atwood, but it's not a classic in the same right.

Next up: Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore. It's the Fearless Readers selection for our June 17 meeting. Yeah, book club is back again - join us! 100-ish pages into the book I can tell you it isn't remotely up my alley (though like 500 people on Amazon rave about it), but it should at least be quick, and if you come to the meeting you have input in the next selection.

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