Book Review: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

2/5 Stars.

Okay, what the hell did I just read?! I came into this one pretty fresh off The Handmaid’s Tale, and it could not possibly be any different. They’re both dystopian, sure, but where Handmaid’s Tale is bleak, serious, brilliant literary fiction, The Heart Goes Last is smutty, campy and ridiculous.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s certainly a highly readable book—a pageturner of sorts. And it starts off with an interesting premise: Stan and Charmaine, a homeless couple living out of their car, accept an opportunity to take part in an experiment that promises to solve unemployment and crime and provide people with a meaningful life. Once they sign that contract, they’ll live out the rest of their lives in a gated community with everything they need…the only catch is that they have to spend every other month in the community’s prison system.

What begins as a compelling commentary on the prison industrial complex and the inevitable downsides of utopian societies goes completely off the rails halfway through and devolves into something else entirely. In fact, at times it’s hard to believe you’re still reading the same story.

It seems like Atwood came into this with lots of really interesting disparate ideas that she wasn’t able to converge into a cohesive narrative. Or maybe not…maybe she just wanted to write something completely out there.

As a full novel, if didn’t really work for me. And it didn’t help that the final quarter was way too drawn out. Also worth mentioning is that the characters of Stan and Charmaine behaved in ways that were frustratingly inconsistent with my understanding of them.

I don’t know. It’s honestly amazing to me that the same person who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale wrote this.

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Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

4.5/5 Stars.

How fitting that I waited until a time when the content of this book feels especially prescient and urgent to finally read it. It’s a scary day indeed when our reality begins to mirror our dystopian fiction.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a totalitarian theocracy where men rule everything. In this new version of America, Offred, the story’s protagonist, is a slave with one purpose and one purpose alone: she must bear children for the Commanders. Throughout the novel, which Offred narrates in first-person, we gradually learn about her own personal past and some of the circumstances that led to this new society.

Okay, so things aren’t that bad for us quite yet, you say. Fair enough. But the themes remain eerily timely.

– Misguided Christians twisting the words of their savior and using their religion as a guise for hatred and control? Check.
– Powerful men imposing on women’s bodily autonomy and agency? Check.
– The ones at the top benefiting while everyone else suffers? Check.
– A totalitarian government replacing American democracy? Well, hey, we’re one week away from Trump taking office, so let’s put an old checkmark in this column, too.

Atwood’s prose, as always, is impeccable. She writes with urgency, purpose, and humanity—and delivers an ending more brilliant and deliberate than I ever could have imagined. (Seriously…THAT ENDING.)

As we prepare to inaugurate a dangerous demagogue to lead the most powerful country in the world, we must be ready to resist him every step away. We must fight for the rights and the agency of all people—especially those who he and his administration have put at risk. As we do this, we can all bear in mind Atwood’s words, which repeat throughout The Handmaid’s Tale in their Latin form, to fuel our resistance:

“NOLITE TE BASTARDES CARBORUNDORUM.”