The odds are good that you’ve already read this book, so I don’t really need to tell you what it’s about. But on the off-chance that you haven’t even heard of it, let’s just say that it’s a page from a future nightmare, a dystopian society where a woman’s role is either a housekeeper, a wife, or a handmaid. Women in this world don’t have jobs outside the house, and have no money of their own. If the woman is the wife of a wealthy man, she stays at home. And if those wives aren’t able to conceive a child, their house is assigned a handmaid. Once a month, these handmaids are forced to fornicate with the man of the house in the hopes of bearing a child. These handmaids only get a certain number of chances at actual procreation and if they don’t manage to make with the babies, they are sent off to some “colonies” to clean up toxic waste.
The protagonist of this book, a handmaid named Offred because she is assigned the household of Fred, describes her typical days of going out to pick up the shopping, because that exercise is useful for keeping her female organs healthy. Offred spends a lot of time thinking about her life before, when she had the freedom to work, when she was married to Luke and they spent time with her daughter. The world hasn’t always been the way it is for her now, and she misses being something other than essentially a broodmare who is brought out once a month in the hopes that she might produce offspring.
The experience of reading this book when I was in high school was very different from reading it now. Aside from the obvious parallels with some of the current political situation and rights for women, reading this book when you are over forty and not planning on having kids, it was pretty clear to me that I’d personally end up out in the colonies picking up toxic waste. I think also reading about the handmaids struggling to conceive reminded me of many friends who have had fertility issues. I had forgotten how powerful this book is, how every sentence contributes to building the story.