After finally reading The Handmaid’s Tale earlier this year, I figured it was time to dive into more Margaret Atwood content! I was looking at Alias Grace but my friend assures me I will love the TV show, so I’m holding off on that one for now. So where to go? Well, the title of The Heart Goes Last kept poking at something in my brain, and so, off I went. It’s as simple as that. And what I got was something very unique and filled with commentary about many different things, but also quite a wacky little setup and adventure in a way. Though, I didn’t love it: because I didn’t love any of the characters therein. For some reason, I couldn’t feel for them, and they seemed almost distant or not truly like real people to me. And perhaps that is part of what is important in this novel, given some of the issues and how they play out: they are the semblance of reality and just the ideas of people while really falling into a lot of unrounded tropes. “That type” of person at face value, if you will. And I do find that if I don’t connect with characters or don’t find them interesting or as if they connect to relatable emotions and personalities, I tend to not fully enjoy a story. It’s not as if this is a bad novel, but definitely not a favourite.
The Heart Goes Last focuses on a married couple named Charmaine and Stan, in the wake of an economic collapse in America. The wealthy remain so, but many people are facing unemployment and homelessness: Stan and Charmaine are living in their car when they see an ad for an experimental new community which provides everything they need, but once they are in, they cannot leave. They eagerly sign up and learn that the setup involves living a normal life in a normal house for a month, and then living and working in a prison for a month, back and forth. The design is derived from experiences utilizing prison labour and does seem to operate smoothly as people share resources and essentially all put in work to ensure that they community continues as it does. But of course, you get the feeling from the beginning that not all is as it seems, as certain “undesirables” are eliminated, only certain types of people and those who appear to follow rules without issue are accepted into the community to begin with, and life continues is a comfortable but strict manner. This unsettling seeming hidden side to the community and prison of course comes to light in what is actually a bit of a wacky situation, manipulated by people on the inside who want the truth out. Overall the plot is intriguing and I was engrossed enough to wonder how it would play out and zip through it quite quickly. Though truth be told it did seem a bit absurd at points, I didn’t totally understand all the inner-workings and economics of the situation, and I wasn’t sure if every part of it was really necessary in coming to the end goal.
Despite being a little thrown by the overall story and seeming unnecessary or egregious nature of some of it, the novel is thematically very strong. It deals with a lot of subjects in a creative and telling way such as: how we perceive people versus who they really are, the security of being told what to go and how to be versus the freedom of making our own choices, is removing free will wrong if people are happy, how the things people tell us and drill into our minds can still come to affect us years later, etc. Some of the most poignant themes, however, are those that are so relevant to our society right now: one of the biggest ones being institutionalized prison labour that is essentially slavery, as well as how we treat those in prison or anyone who we deem to be undesirable or doesn’t follow the prescribed path. There is also a piece on sexual coercion and how sex can be tied up in situations that lead someone to feel powerless and unable to control the situation. Given what is occurring today with all the sexual assault cases particularly involving powerful individuals, this is a very important topic. However, once outside of these situations in the novel, I did find that the preoccupation on sex and happiness in some of the relationships was perhaps overdone: I’m not saying that sex isn’t important and can’t be a huge factor in relationships but really, that realm is not something I relate to.
I was also pleased to find some commentary and themes regarding sex, violence, and sex robots in this novel. I recently tried to start a conversation in a group chat with my friends about sexbots and some of the areas wherein they can be harmful in a grander scheme, buuuuuuuut this did not go very far as nobody responded to the articles I sent about the destroyed sexbot at a convention and following comments I made (Whoops, complaining about being ignored in my review, this is neither the time nor the place, Lisa!). But anyways, there is some interplay between the concept of these realistic robots and the features that are allowed, versus how this may affect real life or lead to dissatisfaction and a need for new advancements or perhaps even violence in the real world, etc. A interesting topic for sure, and one that perhaps we aren’t even aware of what the repercussions will be at this moment.
And yet, despite the inclusion and presentation of a number of topics that got me thinking, it was almost a little too much at times, and I found one of the most important ones (prison labour) almost being forgotten near the end, despite being so crucial to the setup of the novel and how things progress. But more than anything, I found that some of the themes were really overshadowed for me by the main characters who I did not care for. I mean, it’s not as if I can’t be interested in unlikable characters, but here I found there wasn’t enough to them: the grumpy husband who wants his wife to be more into sex, the wife who just wants to live a happy and picket-fence life (okay this one I maybe related to a bit in her insistence to pretend like not everything is terrible all the time), the manipulative outsmarting bitch, the guy who just can’t stop cheating on his wife because of a sex addiction, the disfigured woman who just wants to be loved no matter what, the ceo who always gets what he wants no matter the cost. It felt pretty stock and while there were some moments that hinted at something more, it wasn’t enough. The characters didn’t feel real enough for me to empathize with them or even to understand their motivations. Pair that with a somewhat over-the-top story, and it started to run away from me pretty quick in the second half of the novel.
That said, the premise and overall idea of The Heart Goes Last had potential, and some strong themes therein, however a lot of this got overshadowed by a few too many twists that really weren’t that shocking at all. The characters seemed like they were just along for the ride and not in control of anything. Which…. Okay, so maybe that is kind of the point to the whole thing, in relation to the themes of having your role and life decided for you in order to fit into a picture-perfect puzzle with every cog in place. But uuuuh, it wasn’t clear. Maybe I just need some more time to reflect on this. And the pacing of the plot did keep me wanting to know what happens next, I just found it maybe to be a little too forced feeling? Hm. I just don’t know anymore. Things definitely got a bit convoluted in how everything played out in this one, so I guess at the end of the day, it really boils down to a little too much going on in the plot and action, with too little happening in the characters. If only there was a way to pare down one while bumping up the other. All in all, though, not a bad read, just not one that I found to be particularly great.