I had planned on reading The Testaments (2019) as soon as I’d heard there was a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, but I figured I’d have to wait some time before I could get it from the library. Fortunately, I found it on my library’s “Lucky Day” shelf and was able to grab a copy right away. I’m very glad I read this book. I found it an interesting addition to the story. However, I think The Handmaid’s Tale is still a step above. I loved the beginning and middle of The Testaments, but the end felt unrealistic and doesn’t live up to the rest of the book.
The Testaments takes place fifteen years after the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, where the theocracy of Gilead has taken over a good portion of the United States. Atwood tells the story from the points of view of three different women at slightly different time periods. Agnes is the daughter of a commander, growing up in as privileged a space as a young woman can in Gilead. Aunt Lydia is one of the founders of Gilead. Finally, Daisy is the youngest of them all, and she lives in the relatively free land of Canada.
Agnes tells us the story of her childhood and adolescence, looking back from a slightly different perspective as an adult. She had a very loving mother, and a distant but powerful father. Agnes even enjoyed popularity at school because of her important father. But things change after her mother dies. Her father marries a new woman, who only wants Agnes out of the house. Agnes discovers that her real mother was a handmaid, and Agnes’s new stepmother is ready to marry her off to an old Commander whose wives always seem to sicken and die. The stress of Agnes’s position and her lack of choices makes for some very good reading.
Aunt Lydia is a fascinating woman. She is one of the most powerful women in Gilead, and one of its founders. Aunt Lydia, as one of the few women allowed access to pen and paper, secretly writes down her story from the start of Gilead to the present day. We find out that Aunt Lydia was actually a divorced family court judge when Gilead took over. She details how she became who she is in this new society, as well as all of her current scheming.
Finally, Daisy has just turned sixteen and attends high school in Canada. She sees both protests against Gilead and “Pearl Girls,” young women from Gilead who recruit women back into Gilead. She lives a pretty stable life with her parents until tragedy strikes, everything changes, and she is suddenly on the run. I noticed that Atwood threw in a line that Daisy had to keep her hair back at school. I found it very interesting that even in the “free” country, Daisy still complied with pretty arbitrary rules about her body.
I really liked reading about the different lives of these three women. Aunt Lydia had to survive the beginning of Gilead and Agnes had to try to avoid a bad marriage and retain some control over her life. Daisy’s life, as well, was full of danger and excitement. It made for a good read.
It was only near the end of the book that I was slightly disappointed. I liked Daisy’s reaction when she came to Gilead and I liked Agnes’s reaction to Daisy, which felt very realistic. But I was still hoping for something more.
My biggest problem was that the story began to feel unrealistic and not as grounded as I continued to read. I didn’t know why Aunt Lydia required “Baby Nicole” or Daisy to come to Gilead to bring the information back to Canada in the first place. Was it because it would be bigger news if Nicole brought back the information? Did she think the sisters would have a better time making their escape together? Did Daisy and Agnes realize that Becky was going to die when they left her behind? Also, didn’t most people already know at least most of what was going on in Gilead? I’m not so sure that a little more bad P.R. would make a difference in that horrible place. Couldn’t Gilead just call it “fake news” and ignore it like someone else we know? I know Gilead was facing other problems as well, and this was piling on, but Aunt Lydia seemed to be working awfully hard and burning all her bridges for something that did not seem like a sure bet.
I also had some problems believing that Aunt Lydia could hear and see everything without anyone knowing. She put a camera into a statue and no one noticed her doing it or saw the hole in the statue. Also, Daisy, a sixteen-year-old girl with minimal training punched an old lady once and put her in a very convenient coma. The old woman also came out of her coma at the perfect time. I just didn’t buy it.
Although I felt the ending of the book was comparatively weak, I still very much enjoyed reading it. Atwood is a favorite of mine and a very impressive writer.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.