This will mostly be a spoiler-free review, unless you haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale.
So to say that I wasn’t looking forward to this book at all is to undersell how unnecessary I felt like this book was going to be. I have some significant issues with the television show because for me, it sheds light on what felt like purposeful shadow within which the original novel kept the narrative. The original novel was a collection of found tapes secreted away and found later, now being studied by a collective of historians at a conference. We are witness to Offred’s saga, but we are kept in the same kind of paranoid and claustrophobic life that she’s been able to sustain in the repressive society Gilead. The show takes that clouded viewpoint and bursts it wide open. It takes what’s essentially an almost fable, and tries to make it a prophetic vision. In some ways that’s fine of course as it does feel like there’s the same kind of right-wing evangelical takeover of the US. However, it’s also not fine, because part of the fable-like quality of the novel is taking things to logical conclusions, more so than a kind of futurist realism.
This novel takes that same impulse and casts a spotlight on the novel. Atwood herself tells us she was inspired by the questions readers have asked her through the years. But I reject the categorization of the first novel as having a “cliffhanger” ending so much as having an ambiguous ending, one made sadder by the longview of history the novel specifically leaves us with. So to take that subtle, narrow vision and to toss it away feels wasteful and frustrating.
The new novel gives the background information to every single little part of Gilead, none of which we really needed, as the original novel gave enough hint and proof of how the society works. And it’s not a society we need those details about…we need the fear and isolation and paranoia, not how like…books works there. If it’s not borrowed from other dystopia — books are the same as in Brave New World, if you’re in power, something we already knew from the liberties commanders have in the first book, it’s over-explained like in The Phantom Menace.
I can’t say I am disappointed, because I kind of figured this is what this novel would be, but I was hoping we’d get something more.