Summer of Women Writers: Book 1: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Image: Hulu

Hello, blog! I know it has been forever since I’ve written, but during the semester my life is just too crazy to write quality posts with any sort of regularity. I have a little something different today, since I haven’t been travelling. (I did travel once during the semester, to New Orleans on a service trip for Spring Break. Maybe I will write a reflective, three month late post on that?) During this past semester, I was reading upwards of 150 pages a week for my anthropology and foreign policy classes alone, and if my reading assignments ever lightened up, it was to make way for writing papers. This meant that when I had time to relax, I didn’t really want to spend it reading or writing. Well, now that I’m doing research for the summer, my work still involves a lot of reading and writing, but I have a lot more free time, too. So this summer I am finally getting to books that I should have read a long time ago. I decided that I would write little reviews/reflections on them to stretch my “fun” writing muscles and to put something on the blog!

Why Women Writers?

Recently, it came out that Junot Diaz, author ofThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, has been accused of sexual harassment and assault. His aforementioned book was required reading for the freshman class my first year at Rollins and I hated it. An article I read talked about how we should not protect Diaz simply because he is a Latino author, just as we should not defend Cosby because he is a Black comedian. Instead, the author urges, let’s celebrate and acknowledge the thousands of minority artists who are extremely talented and NOT literal human garbage!

I also have a tirade I love to go on about how we are made to read male-centric books, by men, throughout our entire educational career until the very end of high school. Now, many of these books/plays are wonderful (Catch-22, Tom Sawyer, Death of a Salesman), ​but I found (and find) the lack of feminine voices and complex women characters in many school reading lists disturbing, especially when there are so many good works to choose from which feature these components. To Kill a Mockingbird, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Fried Green Tomatoes,and The Joy Luck Club were a few I enjoyed in high school. Luckily for me, my AP Language and Literature teachers provided us with a wide breadth of material from different authors, but they are not norm, and until 10th grade I felt that almost everything I read for school (exceptTKAM) was about boys!

So, this summer, I am focusing on books written by women,all kinds of women. Most of these books have been on my “To Read” List forever, and I am just now getting to them. So far, I have readThe Handmaid’s Taleand I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, ​and I just checked out The House of the the Spiritsfrom the library. Read on to see my thoughts onThe Handmaid’s Tale, ​and stayed tuned for future reflections. While I discuss themes of the book, I don’t give anything major away.

The Handmaid’s Tale ​by Margaret Atwood

This book has gotten a lot of attention recently due to its hit Hulu show adaptation. I actually haven’t seen the show, but I might start it soon. (For some reason, it’s hard for me to get into dramatic TV shows. If I want drama, I prefer it in a book.) What prompted me to pick this book up (at the fantastic Haslam’s Book Store in St. Pete) was the recommendation of my roommate. This is her favorite book of all time, and I trust her judgement. And as it turns out, for good reason! I devoured this book in three days and really, really enjoyed it.

If you’re not familiar,The Handmaid’s Tale describes a dystopian near-future where the US has been turned into a Puritan autocratic theocracy, and falling fertility rates have created the practice of rich families having a “handmaid” to bear children for them (see the Old Testament). Women are completely stripped of their rights, and the handmaids are reduced to only as a way to bear children and nothing else. Infertile women are discarded and used as hard laborers until they die. The story is told as a memoir recorded by Offred (Of Fred), one of the handmaids. This society is so new that Offred lived life as a normal American woman, and is part of the first generation of women forced into being handmaids. The story is disturbing, chilling, and absolutely enthralling.

Throughout the novel Atwood deals with lots of societal themes, such as power differentials between classes and genders. In today’s climate, reading about a society that has stripped all rights from women (including owning property and reading) and following the story of a woman who has essentially no control over anything in her life, including her own body, is enough to make your skin prickle. But what made this book special for me is the compelling way Atwood writes about these themes. Sometimes reading a book this dark, or about such heavy topics, can feel like a chore. It is too bitter, too dark, too heartbreaking- it feels like pulling teeth to read. However, Atwood uses Offred as a narrator in such a way that this book remains sickening and terrifying, but exceedingly readable. In many ways, Offred is already desensitized to this new way of life and identity (we never learn her real name), so this softens the blow of these horrible things happening to her. At the same time, her numbness to some of the horrors of the book make it even more sad and scary.

During the narrative, Offred remembers her past life, her mother, her best friend, and her family, all of whom she has been separated from. To me, the most heart-wrenching part of the story was the separation of Offred from her daughter. Atwood deals adroitly with the idea of “ambiguous loss,” the phenomenon that makes losing someone so much harder when you don’t know if they’re really gone (are they dead, or living life somewhere else? Will I ever see them again? ). This sort of loss brings a type of grief that is incredibly difficult to shake or move on from. I have been thinking a lot about this idea recently, after seeing the Annie Russell’s amazing production of ​The Women of Lockerbie, ​and reading ​The Land of Open Graves ​by Jason DeLeon, which details the invisible death of immigrants trying to cross the Sonoran desert. This was one of the most fascinating themes of the book for me, and one that I couldn’t stop thinking about when I put the book down.

Offred makes an excellent narrator. She is an imperfect protagonist, who makes morally gray decisions, and isn’t often as brave as many heroines are. In fact, Offred’s weakness was one of the things I liked most about her as a character. She wasn’t the revolutionary, the one who refused to be broken. She wasn’t the Diana, the Katniss, or the Beatrice (Divergent). ​While strong, brave female protagonists are wonderful and important, I think realistic, complex, afraid protagonists are important, too. Instead of making her unlikeable, her “bad” decisions and weakness made her feel more real, even when I disagreed with her actions. ( In the show, apparently, they make Offred a more brave and more typical heroine, which makes me hesitant to watch it.)

Finally, I also really enjoyed the narrative style of this book. The narrative is split between current events in Offred’s life and memories of her past. The blending of the two is done very well. Atwood’s descriptive writing style is also very compelling, and I found her voice in my head after I set the book down, as I tend to do when I’m reading a particularly good book.This is a page turner, but not because it is necessarily suspenseful. It is just so well written you can’t wait to get back to it.

As you can probably tell, I really enjoyedThe Handmaid’s Tale. ​I highly recommend picking it up. It is relevant, moving, and page-turning. If anyone has any recommendations of other books similar to this one (other than Brave New World and 1984)​ then please send them my way! I hope you enjoyed, and stay tuned for my reflection on Maya Angelou’s classic I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.