GeekyNerdy Book Club: The Handmaid’s Tale

the-handmaids-tale-coverThis month on the GNBC we are featuring Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale.  I’m a little late responding to this one, but you can check out the original discussion post here.

I actually went and bought this one in paperback because I thought this might be the kind of book I’d want to own.  It’s been back in the public consciousness recently because of the critically acclaimed Hulu adaptation, plus the fact that it’s been a number one seller on Amazon–unusual for a book first published in the 80s.

There is so much to unpack with this book; I can see why it’s frequently taught in universities and even high schools.  But quite frankly, I’m glad it didn’t come to me until now; I don’t think I would have appreciated it as much.

This was a difficult book for me to read, and I mean that in several different ways.

First of all, it is slow.  The book is not plot-driven.  Pretty much nothing really happens until the midpoint of the book, just Offred going through daily life and thinking.  Thinking about her lost daughter, about her indoctrination into the Handmaids, about the past, about her room, about suicide.  Thinking is enough; it paints a marvelous picture of Offred’s world.  But I didn’t find it “gripping” in the way of other novels, which is one reason I never made it past the first few chapters when I tried to read it over ten years ago.

Second, Offred’s story is presented in first person, present tense (her remembrances of the past are in past tense).  This is currently all the rage in YA novels, and I am not a fan.  Luckily, Atwood is a good writer, and the narrative style is entirely purposeful.  From chapter seven:

It’s also a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along….But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone.  You don’t tell a story only to yourself.  There’s always someone else.

And the end of the story reveals that Offred has recorded her story on audio tapes which were later recovered and pieced back together.  This explains why the narrative jumps around so much, but it doesn’t change the fact that it can be confusing.  Sometimes I wouldn’t immediately understand what day it was or where in the flow of time the words I was reading took place.

I also had a hard time picturing the locations in the story as being overlaid on the localities in the modern day Boston area.  Maybe if I’d been to Boston for more than a few hours it would have been easier, but I could only see the community as something new, secluded in an unrecognizable place.  Making the connection between pre-Gilead and post-Gilead was hard to me.

But the most fundamental reason that this book was hard to read was the subject matter; it is disturbing.  And even now I am having a hard time writing about why it was so particularly disturbing to me now.  This book affected me like it wouldn’t have before because I am five months pregnant.  Everything that Offred goes through, her blissful existence in her past life with her husband and young daughter, her anguish at that being taken away, her life being stripped to an equivalence with her mere reproductive capabilities, her shifts between guilt, despair, and hope, hope of a new pregnancy, of a new child that will also not be hers–all of her thoughts and feelings felt deeply personal to me.

I believe in my empathetic nature, that the book would have affected me before, but now, as I start a family with my husband, I think I truly understand the stakes, how much there is to lose.  I was reading this book with a love note from my husband tucked between the pages as a bookmark.  Can you think of anything more ironic than that?  I’d like to pretend that it wasn’t an accident, but an act of defiance.

I thought it was interesting how Offred and Ofglen are presented as foils for each other.  Of the two, Ofglen is the revolutionary, the Katniss Everdeen of Gilead.  But she is not our main character.  We are following Offred instead, who is not a revolutionary.  In fact, she feels, well, almost satisfied, once her life is bearable.  It is enough for her, and she won’t risk it for the sake of others.  She stops being interested in the machinations of Ofglen’s secret group.  But for Ofglen, there is no “satisfied,” at least maybe until Gilead is done away with.  She is an amazing woman, but I think I am more like Offred.  I understood her perfectly.

I liked how the ending is ambiguous; we don’t know where Offred is being lead, and by whom.  I think it fit very well with the rest of the book, and I’ve always liked these kinds of endings (The Giver, Inception)–but I know some people hate them.  I remember people arguing in the sixth grade about whether Jonas lived in freedom or died at the end of The Giver!  The Historical Notes tagged on to the end provide a lot of interesting context to the story, but the tonal shift is so jarring; I am undecided whether the book is better with or without them.

Image result for the handmaid's tale

As I was reading some articles about the Hulu adaptation (which I haven’t seen; I don’t have Hulu), I came across one that mentioned that Offred is raped repeated by her Commander.  Immediately, my inner head voice said, No, that’s not right.  Offred herself says it’s not rape.  From chapter 16:

Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for.  There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.

But I pushed that knee-jerk reaction aside and thought about it some more.  Just because Offred doesn’t consider it rape, are we obliged to do the same?  Offred clearly doesn’t want to consider herself a victim; she wants to maintain control of her body, her life, her mind.  But what, really, was the choice she had, the alternative to having sex as a Handmaid?  Possible torture and death, from what I can tell.  This is exactly the kind of situation, the kind of dilemma, that we as a society consider rape all the time.  Just because the torture and death aren’t immediate doesn’t make them any less real.

In any case, perhaps the semantics are irrelevant.  The point is that no one should have to do what Offred has to do.  The perverseness of the social order of the Republic of Gilead is well-established by the novel, and will stick with everyone who reads it for a long time.

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17 thoughts on “GeekyNerdy Book Club: The Handmaid’s Tale

  1. kwenzqoatl June 28, 2017 / 4:17 pm

    Wow this is totally different than what I thought this would be about. It actually peeks my interest now. Aside from the title I knew nothing really.

    Like

    • Mei-Mei June 28, 2017 / 11:09 pm

      Definitely check it out…it’s not light reading haha but it really makes you think.

      Like

    • Mei-Mei June 28, 2017 / 10:45 pm

      My job here is done haha.
      But seriously, I would recommend this to anyone. There’s a reason it’s a classic and getting so much press right now.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. saraletourneau June 29, 2017 / 8:09 am

    Nice review, Mei-Mei. I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale yet, and I’d really like to, especially after everything I’ve read about the Hulu show. (I wasn’t able to watch it, either.) But I had no idea the book takes place in the Boston area. That’s where I live. So it’ll be interesting to place the story’s locations within the setting I know in real life.

    I may just have to ask for the book for my birthday. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mei-Mei June 29, 2017 / 8:47 pm

      I think it might be in Cambridge? At least, they mention university buildings (not that Boston doesn’t have a plethora of those). I think it might make it more meaningful for you to be able to recognize the locations.

      You’ll have to let us know how you like it πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  3. starwarsanon June 29, 2017 / 2:24 pm

    WAIT MEI MEI WHAT YOU’RE PREGNANT WHEN DID YOU ANNOUNCE THIS AND HOW DID I MISS IT AND OMG I’M THE WORST PERSON EVER HOW ARE YOU GOING TO DO FAN ART FRIDAY IN THE FALL OMG WHAT BUT I’M SO HAPPY FOR YOU AT THE SAME TIME GET READY FOR YOUR LIFE TO BE IN ABSOLUTE SHAMBLES THE FIRST YEAR BUT THEN IT GETS BETTER AND I’M ALMOST DONE YELLING BUT I’M REALLY HAPPY FOR YOU.

    Okay. I skipped almost the rest of your review to write that. Now let me go back and read it.

    Okay read it.

    I have not read the book. I got it out of the library 2 years ago, had my horrible pregnancy issues, and then returned it because I have heard it’s … a tough read… and that wasn’t the right moment in my life. So, now, I still haven’t read it because I now have ARM who is a year and everything is just too close to home. My husband is watching it on Hulu and I refuse.

    Thank you for reaffirming that I shouldn’t read it because of my delicate disposition haha.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mei-Mei June 29, 2017 / 8:54 pm

      LOL I got such a kick out of reading your “yelling.”

      You didn’t miss anything; this was basically the announcement haha. I’m sure I’ll do an official post later, but I just couldn’t talk about this book without explaining why it affected me so much. And yeah, you shouldn’t read this haha. At least not right now, maybe in a few years. And make sure you have some other lighter things to read, too. I was burning through Regency romance stories at the same time so I wouldn’t get depressed.

      Like

      • starwarsanon June 29, 2017 / 8:56 pm

        And is it a boy or girl? Any star wars names in the running? Eh eh?

        Like

  4. starwarsanon June 29, 2017 / 8:56 pm

    I don’t read two books at the same time. Well… Rarely.

    When is your due date?

    Like

    • Mei-Mei June 29, 2017 / 9:00 pm

      I’m due late Nov, around Thanksgiving. It’s a boy, and there are definitely Star Wars names in the running! I’ll take suggestions, too haha

      Like

      • starwarsanon June 29, 2017 / 9:14 pm

        Luke! If I have a boy that’s gonna be his name. I actually really like Cassian too even though I didn’t like RO

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mei-Mei June 29, 2017 / 10:50 pm

        Both on my list πŸ˜€

        Like

  5. starwarsanon June 30, 2017 / 7:16 am

    Woohooo. You know… It would be so cool if we both had boys named Luke. And a girl with Rey in their name somewhere. Of course, this means I have to have a boy and you have to have a girl lol

    Liked by 1 person

  6. GeekyNerdyGirl July 11, 2017 / 8:49 pm

    Mei-Mei! First of all, CONGRATULATIONS!!!! That is super exciting news and I hope these last few months go as smoothly as possible for you and B!

    As for the book, I can’t even begin to imagine reading it while pregnant. It definitely adds a different dimension to everything – one that I can’t currently relate to. Though I do share your desire to follow it up with something a little lighter (hence the HP re-read!).

    While I totally understand not wanting to dive back into the world of Gilead – or pay for a Hulu subscription (especially with a little one on the way!) – I will attest that the show is worth all of the hype. The acting is phenomenal and they flesh out the back stories for several characters (e.g., Ofglen, Serena Joy, Nick, etc.), which also helps build out Gilead, and illustrates how it came to be. I actually found it to be somewhat more hopeful than the book, because the defiance of the women – both Wives and Handmaids – was much clearer, if subtle.

    Anyway, I know this was a hard book to “like,” but I’m glad you found it just as thought-provoking as I did!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mei-Mei July 12, 2017 / 10:57 pm

      Haha thank you πŸ™‚
      Yeah, I don’t think I could say I “liked” this book. But I am really glad we read it. And I was excited to write about it when I was done, which I haven’t felt with a lot of the more simple books I’ve been reading lately.

      I was really wondering how they did the adaptation. And I was surprised there would be a second season; I guess I was picturing it more like a miniseries or something. Hopefully I’ll get to see it sometime.

      Liked by 1 person

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