I had actually decided not to read this latest book by Margaret Atwood. I’ve been watching The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu and loving it, but the publication of this book just felt like Atwood capitalizing on something that’s already making her a lot of money. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it doesn’t mean I need more Gilead in my life.
Then my book club elected to read this book and I was like, “OK, I guess I’m reading this book.”
I ended up really enjoying it.
I got the audiobook from my library, which turned out to be the right choice because the audiobook is fantastic.
The book takes place about 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale. It does incorporate some characters and plot points from the show, but I don’t think it’s necessary to have seen the show in order to enjoy the book. That said, I am going to reveal a ton of spoilers in this blog post, so consider yourself warned.
The book is told in the form of Aunt Lydia’s secret writings and witness testimony from two girls. I can’t actually remember if Aunt Lydia is ever named in the original book, but she’s been a major character in all three seasons of the TV show. She’s portrayed as the embodiment of the establishment, instilling the doctrine of Gilead into the handmaids and punishing them with beatings and tasers when they don’t comply. There was one episode in the latest season of the show where we got to see Lydia pre-Gilead and just how unhappy and vengeful she was in that life. I think it was supposed to give us an idea of how she became the kind of person who could torture and execute other women, but this book paints a very different picture of Aunt Lydia.
In this version, she is secretly working to take down Gilead, and she describes what the transition from living in the U.S. to living in Gilead was like for her. She was tortured into submission, so she vowed to gain and keep as much power as she could and keep records of everything so she could take Gilead down. She is ruthless in pursuing her goals and does not excuse the crimes she committed for the sake of the greater good. She doesn’t expect to outlive Gilead, but that doesn’t stop her.
Ann Dowd, who plays Aunt Lydia in the show, narrates her part of the story for the audiobook, which is perfect.
Another character is Agnes, a young woman who was born pre-Gilead, but was so young when Gilead took over that she doesn’t remember anything else. She’s been raised in a commander’s house with a mother who loves her and three marthas (a symbol of their status). That makes her a big shot at school, but when her mother dies, she falls out of favor with her father, who quickly marries another woman, who is also not a fan of Agnes. They get a handmaid so they can have a baby of their own. When there are difficulties with the birth, they cut the handmaid open to get to the baby and then they leave her to die, but Agnes vows never to forget her.
Agnes has to learn from one of her classmates that her parents are not her biological parents, that her birth mother was a handmaid (which means she was a “whore”, which is the worst thing a woman can be in Gilead). Agnes is horrified, but the revelation also leads her to understand why she fell out of favor with her father after her mother died.
Once Agnes starts menstruating and her father and stepmother have a baby of their own, her stepmother starts the process of marrying her off. Her friend, Becca, who’s of a lower social status, is also receiving offers of marriage that her parents are eager to accept, but Becca doesn’t want to marry anyone ever. One day at school Becca calmly cuts open her wrist, whereupon she’s taken away and never returns to class.
Agnes is also less than thrilled about the prospect of marriage, but she doesn’t see a way out of it. She considers killing herself, but knows she doesn’t have the guts for it. Finally, she ends up going to the aunts and saying she’s received a “higher calling” to become an aunt and guide other young women, rather than become a wife and mother. So she starts training to become an aunt and lo and behold, there’s Becca! Rather than risk another suicide attempt, they let Becca start to train to become an aunt, where she’s been learning to read. Aunts are the only women who are allowed to read in Gilead, so Agnes has to start learning the alphabet as soon as she starts her training to become an aunt.
The third narrator is a girl named Daisy living in Canada. She’s grown up learning about Gilead, but (as far as she knows) she’s never been. She’s been raised by a couple named Melanie and Neal who both get blown up in a car bomb on her 16th birthday, whereupon a family friend, Ada, reveals to Daisy that Melanie and Neal were not her parents. Her mom was a handmaid in Gilead who smuggled her to Canada when she was a baby and Melanie and Neal have been keeping her identity and location secret from Gilead agents ever since – she is the infamous Baby Nicole, the baby that was “stolen” from her “rightful” Gilead parents and about whom Gilead has made such a fuss ever since. Daisy even had to write a paper about her in school, having no idea at the time that she herself was Baby Nicole. So, her name isn’t really Daisy, it’s Nicole. And May 1st isn’t even her birthday. In reality, she was born about 4 months earlier, but I find it interesting that her adoptive parents, agents of Mayday, chose to say that her birthday was May Day.
Ada and another family friend are also agents of Mayday and they’ve received an important assignment. Their contact in Gilead has critical information to pass on to Canada, but they need someone to fetch the information, and for some reason, Nicole has to be the one to go in, presumably because she’s a young girl and Gilead is actively recruiting young women who might be fertile. So she goes undercover to Gilead and ends up rooming with Agnes and Becca so they can teach her about the ways of Gilead. It’s a culture shock for all three of them.
Aunt Lydia is fully aware from the beginning that Daisy is actually Baby Nicole, and she informs her superior of her identity. He decides the best thing would be for him to marry Nicole right away. Aunt Lydia realizes she doesn’t have much time to smuggle her information out of Gilead with Nicole, so she gets to work quickly. But if she was always planning on smuggling Nicole out of Gilead again, why tell anyone her true identity?
Anyway, Aunt Lydia reveals to Agnes and Nicole that they are half-sisters and that their mother was a handmaid who has also been working with Mayday. Anyone who watched the show already knew this, but it’s a revelation for the two girls. They don’t have much time to bond though because Aunt Lydia has to get her information literally inside Nicole and then sneak her and Agnes to Canada. They quickly hatch a plan and it works. They barely make it to Canada, but they both survive, although poor Becca drowns herself in the building’s reservoir in order to create enough of a distraction that no one thinks to pursue them until it’s too late.
I listened to the Nerdette podcast discuss this book and they did not enjoy it nearly as much as I did and I think it all comes down to expectations. I had very low expectations for this book, making me easy to impress, whereas they had very high expectations, making them much more difficult to impress.
What did you read/listen to this week? Anything else you enjoyed more than you were expecting to?