It's weird. I'm aware that this is quite a GOOD book. And yet . . .
The deal here is that it's the future, and culture has regressed to a sort of puritanical, uber-religious state, the most distressing feature of which is that women are property, to the point of being stripped of their names and assigned generic Biblical names in keeping with their given social position.
Because pollution has rendered many men and women sterile (just don't suggest that the men are sterile, because this must all be the fault of the sinful WOMENS), the upper-level childless households are each assigned a handmaiden to act as a surrogate. The handmaiden's sole job is to get knocked up. And this morally debatable practice is justified as so many things are—using the Bible . . . because of that whole Abraham and Hagar thing.
|Because that turned out SO WELL for everyone.|
The particular handmaiden telling this tale gives us glimpses into how society transitioned from women-working-and-smoking-and-wearing-tennis-shoes to women-wearing-full-skirts-and-veils-and-being-absolutely-forbidden-to-read. In this present, women are divided into categories and color-coded accordingly (wives in blue, handmaidens in red, cooks in hospital green, etc.). Some women have more freedom than others, but none are free. For example, the women with the highest quality of life in this new society are the Commanders' wives. But their very special burden is that they each must house another woman and welcome her into their marital bed (once a month, in a very unsexy sort of ceremonial threesome). They, too, are miserable and bitter.
And that's one of the most compelling themes, I think (among many). The way that women, finding themselves in the same marginalized and repressive circumstances, will so often choose to go for each other's throats, rather than drawing strength from their shared misfortune and channeling their anger toward the actual oppressor.
|When we boob-fight, the enemy wins.|
It may also be important to mention here that men as a whole aren't demonized in the book. There are a few good eggs. And mostly, I think they just got swept up in it all—as I imagine many of the everyday citizens of Nazi Germany did, for example.
I hadn't previously read any Margaret Atwood, but people seem to think she's pretty swell. And dystopian-future fiction is my jam. So I was all geared up to love the modest red dress off this book. And while I greatly admire the tailoring and structure of the red dress, I will not be purchasing one of my own. How did I end up in this metaphor?
Anyway, important themes, good writing . . . but it didn't suck me in OR blow me away (don't be dirty).