Thursday, December 19, 2019

Review: THE TESTAMENTS by Margaret Atwood

Rating: 4/5 stars

I really enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, so I was very interested to read the sequel. I don’t particularly think the book needed a sequel, but with the release of the show and the way it progressed the story beyond the book, I think a continuation novel was inevitable.

While I did like this book, I didn’t feel like it aligned in tone with the previous book or with the show (which this book clearly takes influence from). I feel like the Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale and in the Hulu adaption was a lot more brutal and strict. Everyone is too nice in this book. Maybe it’s because we get inside perspectives in this book of an Aunt and of a daughter in a prestigious household instead of that of a handmaid that it just feels different, I don’t know, but the tone is completely different between the stories.

We follow three perspectives: Aunt Lydia; Offred’s first daughter, raised in Gilead; and Offred’s second daughter, Nicole, smuggled from Gilead and raised in free Canada. The story mostly follows Nicole in Canada, and Gilead’s efforts to try to return her to Gilead and the Resistance’s efforts to take down Gilead. First of all, the whole basis of The Testaments seems faulty to me. Nicole is not the first baby or person to leave Gilead, but there is a HUGE media presence in Canada about returning Baby Nicole to Gilead and that Canada stole her, etc. I legitimately do not understand why this is the case and why they don’t just let it go. They didn’t try to get anyone else back, so why Baby Nicole?

Anyway, I want to talk about Aunt Lydia now. Her characterization did not at all match the Aunt Lydia we knew from the first book and the show. I really can’t see her having the thoughts that she did in her parts of this book. I guess everyone had a normal life before Gilead, but to think that she was a judge and that she had an abortion then turns around and so hypocritically tells the handmaids it’s a sin, I just can’t imagine her ever being like that. And in the TV show, Aunt Lydia repeatedly told a girl who was raped that it was her fault. Now we have The Testaments, where Aunt Lydia told a girl who was presumably raped that the man would be punished in time. This is the complete opposite reaction.

I just don’t get how Aunt Lydia could be as ruthless as she was if she truly was against the regime in Gilead. She made a comment early in this book that she was going to get back at them, whatever it would take, yet she seemed to enjoy her role of power as an Aunt, inflicting pain on others and terrifying those whom she spoke to. I wish her characterization would have been more consistent.

Also, I completely don’t understand how or why she was deified in this book. They erected a freaking statue of her? Are you kidding me? In Gilead, that seems highly unlikely. Why not a statue of God since they claim to be so pious? Or of the founder of Gilead at least. But Aunt Lydia? I’m not buying that at all.

Fun fact though: the actress who plays Aunt Lydia on the TV show is the voice actor for Aunt Lydia in the audiobook and I loved that so much. As soon as chapter one started I knew it was her.

It’s interesting to learn how Aunts are chosen and raised. They’re allowed to read. If only they didn’t force young girls to marry old, sterile men and raise them the way they do, then maybe they would actually want to marry and have children, which I should remind everyone is the whole reason Gilead was set up—to grow the population.

There are so many hypocritical things in this society. In the first book, I was angry because of the injustices in Gilead, but I thought the book was a great critical look into society and what could become. Now with this book, I’m angry because of the hypocrisy and the inconsistencies between the books’ details. Before, it felt like a cult. Now it just feels unrealistic. I can’t clearly explain my thoughts but ultimately I don’t think this book was necessary. There is an allure to the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale, the ambiguous cliffhanger of what will happen next. That book was so real and controversial, whereas this book feels like a forced follow-up (because it is) with holes and consistency errors that do not align with the original story.

I like the way the TV series has expanded on the story, but TV has the right to take creative liberties. But the author coming back thirty-five years later with a sequel, that feels cheap. What I don’t like is that it feels like you need to watch the show to understand this book. Because that’s how I knew who the characters were. Baby Nicole was named in the show, but not in the first book; in the first book, Offred didn’t have a second baby. I haven’t seen all of the show’s episodes yet though, so I don’t know how they fully compare.

On its own, The Testaments is nearly a five-star book, but when I compare it to The Handmaid’s Tale in terms of quality and also as a follow-up to the story, where characters already existed with predetermined personalities, this is a four-star book. Maybe even three because of how many issues I had, but I love Atwood’s writing style so much that I’m giving it four stars.

The main question I had while reading The Handmaid’s Tale and while watching the show didn’t even get answered though! I wanted to know why Gilead is so intent on killing people who don’t follow their laws when the whole purpose of setting up Gilead and its laws in the first place was to force procreation to keep the population growing. It can’t grow if you kill off everyone. Margaret Atwood said that the idea for The Testaments came from all the questions she got from readers over the decades about her original story, and this sequel is supposed to be answers to those questions. I think the most important question though is why the government kills so many people when they’re trying to expand the population, and I really think that should have been addressed. I guess it’s just because their society has become so manic and power-hungry at this point that they’ve lost focus on the original reason of creating Gilead and are more focused on being in control.

I liked this book, don’t get me wrong. I liked all three perspectives, although Daisy’s was my favorite. But I can’t help but compare this book to the original story of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is where I find faults. It didn’t feel like a genuine sequel because the characterization of Aunt Lydia and the society of Gilead were not how they were portrayed to be in the first book. There were a lot of inconsistencies, which was my biggest issue. Atwood still has given us a well-written book though—I do enjoy her prose—and that’s what really worked for me in this book. Of course with a dystopian society like Gilead, we always want to know more, we want to know what happens after the end. But sometimes it’s better not to know, and sometimes the story is stronger with a vague ending. This story is one of those times.

There’s something about the open-endedness of The Handmaid’s Tale that leaves the reader questioning what happened to Offred and Gilead that has a certain mystifying quality. But to know what happened later, and what happened behind the scenes, it takes away some of that ethereal quality. The Testaments is still an excellent book, and while I’m grateful for it as I’m the kind of reader who wants a wrapped-up ending with all my questions answered, I don’t think it was quite necessary. Something about the allure of The Handmaid’s Tale is that it was written thirty-five years ago but is still relevant today in its egregiousness, whereas The Testaments was written in today’s age and there’s just a different feel to it.

I think if you’re highly interested in The Handmaid’s Tale and are dying to know more about the continuation of Gilead or you’re a huge Atwood fan, pick this up. But if you were satisfied with the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale and are on the fence about whether or not to read the sequel, I think it’s a safe pass. Enjoy the mystique that the first book left you and move on.

No comments:

Post a Comment