Talking about The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Part review, part commentary, completely spoiler-free, ‘Talking about’ began with my post on Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and has now evolved into a post format I’m going to use to talk about the classics I read. Today, it’s the turn of a contemporary classic, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Book Description

Offred is a Handmaid in The Republic of Gilead, a religious totalitarian state in what was formerly known as the United States. She is placed in the household of The Commander, Fred Waterford – her assigned name, Offred, means ‘of Fred’. She has only one function: to breed. If Offred refuses to enter into sexual servitude to repopulate a devastated world, she will be hanged. Yet even a repressive state cannot eradicate hope and desire. As she recalls her pre-revolution life in flashbacks, Offred must navigate through the terrifying landscape of torture and persecution in the present day, and between two men upon which her future hangs.

Masterfully conceived and executed, this haunting vision of the future places Margaret Atwood at the forefront of dystopian fiction.

My Thoughts

Unpopular Opinion

Prior to reading this book, I’d heard so much praise about it, to the point where it was put on a pedestal to reign supreme as one of the best pieces dystopian literature has to offer. My friend was raving about the TV adaptation, telling me I needed to watch it, but I always prefer to read the book first, boy, was that a mistake this time around! I disliked the book so much, I have absolutely no intention of watching the series. I’m going to attempt to break down my reading experience with this book, but I’d like your feedback because I feel like I must not have understood something with this book, or something profound occurred, but went right over my head. Interestingly, the person I buddy read this book with also didn’t like it, so it was nice to have someone, throughout the read, who was as disappointed as I was. Side note: I love the cover of my edition!

The Beginning

The first checkpoint in my buddy was up to page 111 [of 307], splitting the book into thirds allowed me to easily decipher my thoughts at each interval – beginning, middle and end. Right from the get-go I wasn’t as blown as I thought I’d be, I largely put that down to ‘the hype’, everything I’d heard about this book likely gave me unrealistic expectations, so I wasn’t too concerned that the first third didn’t grip me straight away, I thought it was just okay.

It was all a bit obscure, intentionally so [I think], I was aware of Offred’s role, but there was very little explanation as to who’s who, and why things are the way they are.

There were also some very bizarre ‘goings on’, that left me thinking WTF, it was all very strange, and I wasn’t entirely sure the point of the book. That should have been the indicator really, 111 pages in and you still don’t understand the point of anything, I should have given up there. Also, it didn’t help that none of the characters endeared themselves to me, likely intentional on the authors part again. Let me know, if you’ve read this one, did you actually like Offred, was the reader suppose to?

Also, something else I found strange, in this dystopia, women have different functions, Offred’s being to breed, and she makes a comment about it being the most desirable role. I don’t know about you, but I’d happily have the function of working in the kitchen, preparing meals, washing up. And if you have read this one, you’ll know about the way in which the breeding occurs, give me a pot and let me get my ass in the kitchen, thank you very much!

The Middle

Why is the format so ‘chunky’? Monotone, no distinction between the changing timelines, and lack of speech marks made it feel even more like I’m just reading block text, after block text, and wow, what a slow-moving plot! As you can see, I’m now in crisis territory, and at this point I have no one to blame but myself for continuing to read on, especially as I’m someone who loves short, choppy chapters. There were a few tense moments in this section where I felt like I should care about the safety of some of these women, but I did not care, not at all. I think that was due to the fact that I didn’t understand the dystopia they were living in; if I can’t understand the ‘world’, the very idea of the roles the characters have and the oppression is lost on me because I don’t believe in it, I don’t feel angst, anger, any emotion where perhaps I should. If me reading this book was a meme, the caption would read “it was at this point Janel knew she fucked up, she should have just watched the TV adaption.” 😂🙈

It was also at this point, that I began to wonder if I was missing some crucial element of the plot. I found the book really heavy to read, not because of the content, but because of the writing style, I found it really inaccessible, and if this wasn’t a buddy read I wouldn’t have finished the book as quickly as I did. Prior to this book, I buddy read Washington Black by Esi Edugyan with the same person, and it was crazy to compare how accessible and readable that book was, in comparison to this one – worlds apart!

The End

I have nothing. I don’t get it. Nope. Not for me.

Interestingly, I said to my buddy read partner that I wasn’t sure what Atwood wanted to portray, as a political dystopia I think this one failed because I never understood the regime, and that was a huge failing for me. She then explained that in her copy of the book, in the ‘editor’s note’, Atwood states that this book was never meant to be political or religious. This shocked me because I’ve always heard this book mentioned right alongside female-centric political dystopia. I suppose this goes to show, if you have a set idea of a book in your head, and this has been reinforced by ‘the hype’, it’s very difficult to go into a book with a completely open mind. In some ways my experience with this book fell victim to ‘the hype’, hugely so, but I also think the writing style, and the slow-moving plot weren’t for me anyway.

Other than it being a buddy read, there must have been something that propelled me to keep reading on, I just don’t know what. Well, at least I now know the meaning of this well known phrase now:

“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”

Over to you…

Have you read this one, I’d love to hear your thoughts, did you like it? Equally, have I made you all the more curious to read it to see how you’ll feel about it, or are you now running a mile?

Buy the Book

Amazon UK / Amazon US / Book Depository / Wordery

62 thoughts on “Talking about The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

  1. Eh I have not read the book (and I have no intention to) but I saw the TV series and I totally loved them. I’m not a fan of dystopia but this was fascinating and felt all too possible. I don’t know if you could get a function in the kitchen so easily if you’re still young and there is still a (slim) chance you can have children. I’d sign up for the kitchen too though given the chance! Thanks for the honest review Janel and I do hope you reconsider and watch the series in the future ;-).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read it last year after losing momentum with the tv show (I have a short attention span for series!) – I kinda liked the understated/deadpan style of it and the weird mix of modern/medieval attitudes towards things.

    It’s a very surreal wtf reading experience though!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This book, quite honestly, never appealed to me for some reason. I wasn’t interested in watching the tv series either, even more so because everyone and their dog was suddenly talking about it and that never ends well for me. After your experience, I’m definitely running another mile and staying away from this.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post. This book never really appealed to me. Maybe because of the hype. I tend to move away from over-hyped books. Unless it’s me contributing to the hype of course. Then it’s allowed 😀 It always seemed to me to be one of those ‘worthy’ books we are all supposed to have read.

    When I posted recently on Twitter asking if I was the only person in the book reading world not to have read this, I was very surprised by the response from so many others who hadn’t read it either. Only one person replied ‘yes’ 😂
    Think I’ll give it a miss

    Caryl

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Caryl! This book is so over-hyped, you’ve done the right thing steering clear!

      O, I missed that twitter post, but I think the fact that the person I was buddy reading it with didn’t enjoy it either shows there must be a community of people who feel the same way. I posted about this on instagram today and a few people didn’t like it, or they liked the TV show better.

      If people want to read this one, because it’s on their radar and sounds like something they’d enjoy, great. But it’s not one I’d recommend reading because of the hype/fear of missing out.

      Like

  5. This book was written some time ago and given a resurgence because of the TV series. It was viewed as a point of caution at the time when women’s rights weren’t as solidified as they are today (still needs a lot of work). It was very much viewed as political statement, about the danger of religion overriding our policy decisions, the lack of feminine voice in that process. It was a chilling view of what the future could be if we didn’t continue the efforts for a more equal society. The starkness of the writing emphasized the dullness of these women’s existence.

    Hope this is helpful.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It’s so interesting that you mention it being viewed as a political statement and the religion aspect, when the ‘editor note’ said this book wasn’t written to be a political or religious statement in any way (I heard that secondhand). I’m not disputing it’s relevance to the time it was written, but overall, I just don’t think it was that impactful. Also, plot aside, the writing style may reflect the dull existence of these women, but not in a good way, it should still have evoked some reaction in me as the reader. I’m glad it worked for other readers, but it was a total miss for me

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I haven’t read it and usually I am the same and I would rather read something before watching the screen adaptation but I did enjoy the TV show, it was slow at points but still had lots of suspense, now I’m not sure if I can bring myself to read the book after reading your thoughts ☺️

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I loved this book, I’m sorry to hear it was such a slog for you! Maybe the dystopian label doesn’t help in what expectations it creates…I never much liked dystopian fiction but this felt to me less like others in that category, maybe because it wasn’t so immersive. I also don’t think you have to like Offred, she didn’t seem intended to be a powerful hero or rebel (this is quite different in the show) but rather like she just wants to do what she has to to survive. I think that’s why it has a monotone narration too, she’s just beaten down.

    And I think Jonetta put it best, I can’t improve on her explanation! I was so-so on the TV show, I liked it at the beginning but it’s just excruciating to watch sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think the dystopia label was the problem, I assumed it would be political dystopia in a similar manner to 1984 by Orwell maybe. ….I did think Offred’s character wasn’t written to be liked. The narration reflecting her bleak outlook is fair enough but it still should have evoked some emotion/reaction in me as the reader. I just don’t think this book was for me at all.

      It’s interesting about the book being viewed as a political statement and the religion aspect, as the ‘editor note’ said this book wasn’t written to be a political or religious statement in any way (I heard that secondhand).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That is really interesting that the editor’s note said that, I’m really curious as to why! We actually read and discussed it in a literature class I had in college and that was definitely the message.

        I’m sure all the hype around this one in the last couple of years didn’t help 😂I hope your next read is more up your alley!

        Liked by 2 people

  8. This is a book I’ve had on my shelves for ages, which I still haven’t read! After reading your thoughts, I’ll probably push it even further down my tbr.
    I did watch the TV show which was terrifying especially as a woman. Well the first series anyway, I gave up on the second 🤭

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I keep hearing people referring to the book and the TV series so it has piqued my interest, but like you I prefer short and snappy chapters so I’m not sure if the writing would appeal to me. I may give it a go though to see what I think as it’s not usually a genre I would read and I’m always looking for something fresh.

    Like

  10. FANTASTIC POST! I haven’t read it because of the hype and the fact everyone raves about it, but I admit I’m curious. Except now that you’ve said all those things, I feel better about not having read it yet, and I know I’ll try it with lower expectations!
    ‘Offred’s being to breed, and she makes a comment about it being the most desirable role. I don’t know about you, but I’d happily have the function of working in the kitchen…’ YES to this!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Meggy! If you do give this one a go, it’s probably best to wait till the hype wears off, although I doubt that’ll happen anytime soon with the popularity of the TV show and the recent announcement that the book sequel is coming.

      Like

  11. Great post! I first read this when I was about 17 or 18, which is longer ago than I care to admit! I’m a big fan, and I’ve reread it a few times since. I do love dystopian fiction though, so this is very much up my street. Sorry to hear it wasn’t for you 😦

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah – we can’t love them all!
        Oh god, I am so excited for The Testaments! It’ll be a case of putting EVERYTHING on hold to read it when it’s released! 😂

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Great post Janel! I haven’t read the book but I did watch the TV series. I do like it but it’s so dark with the way the handmaids are treated. Supposedly by Gilead, it is viewed as the most desirable role but not by the Handmaids. So now I am curious to find out if that was more the impression made in the TV show. I really should read it but I am not sure I want too. lol .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have heard several times that the TV show is better than the book, so you may have done the right things going straight to the show. Although, it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on the book, having experienced the show first 🙂

      Like

    1. Haha, I love that people can read that someone else didn’t enjoy a book and then feel compelled to read it for themselves to see how they feel about it. It’s happened to me and shows there’s space in the book community for less than glowing reviews as they can have a positive impact too 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah if some one is absolutely in love with a book and raves about it it makes me want to read but the same can be said about if someone passionately hates the book and rants about it it makes me want to read it.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. Our experiences with this book are so similar, I also gave it a read because, it must be good if it has a TV series right? 😂 I was so let down by the book! Great post Janel 😊
    Sarah x (littlereaderxoxo.wordpress.com)

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Wonderful review! I’ve been meaning to read this one for ages and you have actually convinced me I should leave it a long while longer. 😉 It defintely sounds like I would have the same problems with it!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I love this post. I appreciate your view. I don’t really have a lot of desire to read the book but I do want to check out the TV series at some point.
    If you do decide to watch the show I hope you enjoy it. However, I can totally understand your hesitation after your experience with the novel.
    I hope your next read is a terrific one. Happy reading!

    Like

    1. Thank you, WP seems to have put a few off your comments in the spam folder, so sorry for the delay in replying. I keep hearing that the TV show is preferable to the book, I guess I need to wait for my dislike of the book to fade so I can watch the show without already thinking I won’t like it. It’s a shame because the same happened with The Sinner, I disliked the book so much, I never watched the adaptation. Now I’m thinking sometimes, I’ll just watch the series straight off.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No worries about the replies. That spam folder is rotten sometimes 😉 You’ve reminded me that I should check mine too. I really liked The Sinner TV series. I didn’t read the book for that one either…maybe that’s a good thing 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  16. I enjoyed the book and the TV series. I don’t usually read hyped books, but this one appealed to me.

    The women don’t get to choose if they are a handmaid or a Martha. You’re still of child-rearing age and healthy, so you’d be a handmaid 😉😂
    If you watch the TV series, the regime of Gilead will scare you to death. I think the TV series also explains it better, as it is visual and terrified me! 😱
    This is one of them books that you absorb better if you watch it first and read afterwards. Offred has a daughter of her own (pre-handmaid life) in the TV series, so that adds depth to her descent into the Gilead regime.
    Let me know if you watch it, so we can debate the themes. I watch with my daughter like this… 😱😱

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I read the book before the series came out, and i quite liked it. Agree on the pace and how monotone it was. In a way, it kinda makes sense, cuz that’s how the main character’s life seemed as well.

    I do prefer the series tho 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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