People’s Choice Book Review: “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

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Recently, I asked the Union community via Instagram to pick a book for me to review (these are the kind of fun shenanigans I’ve been up to while working from home). The choices were Race Matters, The Sun Also Rises, and The Handmaid’s Tale.  Each of these books are available at the library, so patrons can read the review and then pick out the book. The votes came in, and The Handmaid’s Tale was chosen!

Spoiler-free description of The Handmaid’s Tale: a woman in a dogmatic society, the Republic of Gilead, must play the hated role of a Handmaid while grappling with memories of a past life.

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale a year or two ago. I’d heard of it before, and as the show based on the book gained more media attention, the buzz put the book back on my radar (although I still haven’t watched the show). I remember reading The Handmaid’s Tale as fast as my eyes could skim the words- the story was so engrossing and equal parts mind-numbingly sad and frustrating. As soon as I finished, I handed the book over to my husband, and he also read it blazingly fast. I strongly believe that The Handmaid’s Tale is a book by women, for women (and it attracts a largely female audience because it’s talking about female experiences, and boys don’t read “girl” books starting at an early age). But this story is also very much for men, too. In fact, I wish more men would read The Handmaid’s Tale.

Let’s get one thing straight about The Handmaid’s Tale before we dive in to the review: this is a book about a very messed up society. If you’ve kept up with author Margaret Atwood at all, then you know that she is obviously not promoting the mistreatment of women with this book. She is fighting against it in real life by showing how terrible it is in fiction. This is one of those books where some really rough acts and crimes are committed, but that doesn’t mean that the book is promoting this kind of behavior- it’s actually the exact opposite. Yet, The Handmaid’s Tale still winds up on banned book lists because people are afraid to read about real problems (that’s just my opinion there, but hey, this is a book review, so most of this is my opinion).

Mild spoilers ahead.

What The Handmaid’s Tale gets right: This is a very insulated story. It’s told from one woman’s perspective, and since she’s been subjected to brainwashing and abuse, sometimes her perspective is shocking. A lot of books about crazy government regimes focus on the politics or the activists, but this book zeroes in on one Handmaid’s story. I love that. It’s so much more personal and relatable than if we had 300+ pages about every terrible law that Gilead passed.

The Handmaid’s Tale is fictional. Some might call it satire, but it’s also a warning to the real world. Sometimes you can reach a wider audience by instilling your values and fears into fiction, and Atwood does this beautifully in The Handmaid’s Tale. A very paraphrased and basic version of her message is this: women are equal to men, but a lot of societies don’t treat them this way; biological differences are often used by those in power to subjugate women; and systemic oppression is wrong. As a feminist, I appreciate these messages being brought to the general public in the form of a story- this makes hard facts and opinions more accessible to everyone.

What The Handmaid’s Tale gets wrong: There are some slower parts to the book, but honestly you probably won’t notice. You’ll be too caught up in how awful Gilead is. Also, there’s a cliffhanger and we had to wait over 30 years for a sequel. So, if you’re just now picking up this book, you will be excited to know that you can read The Testaments right after (and you can read my review of The Testaments here).

Who should read The Handmaid’s Tale: Readers who enjoy dystopian books, feminist literature, and finally knowing what all of the hype is about.

Who shouldn’t read The Handmaid’s Tale: Younger audiences should wait until they are mature enough for the heavy content.

The Handmaid’s Tale is available as a print book at the library.

Content note: there are scenes of rape and abuse all throughout the book. Reader discretion is advised.

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