I wanted to love the new Gilead book from Margaret Atwood. I wanted that so much. And it didn’t happen for me. She tells a tale that pales in comparison to both The Handmaid’s Tale book and television series. It’s not gritty, suspenseful, or driven by compelling characters. It’s not bad, but definitely not up to the standards of the original works. For me, it was an author attempting to capitalize on the way a series has extended her original work. The key word is attempting, because I think Atwood fails to bring us complex characters in a unputdownable story.
As always, I will try to do the rest of this review without spoilers. But no guarantees. If the first paragraph doesn’t give you what you need, then proceed with caution.
About the plot and characters
As The Testaments opens, we meet Gilead again. This time, we need no descriptions of the wall, or the shops with no written signs. We know young girls grow up never learning to read. The costumes worn by Gilead women are in our mind’s eye. We’ve been watching the adaptation.
After fifteen years, Aunt Lydia continues to amass power and influence. And Offred’s two daughters have lived lives in two distinctly different places. They are in their mid-teens, past the angst of puberty but not yet young adults.
As the story moves between the three women’s narratives, we learn Aunt Lydia’s back story. She tells how she came to be an Aunt, and how she contributed to Gilead’s female power (and lack of it) structure. Ultimately, it’s not an especially flattering story.
Baby Nicole is still in Canada, living under another name and doing basically normal teen things. She’s learned a lot about Gilead in school. And she has definite opinions about it.
Offred’s other daughter, Agnes Jemima, has been raised by a Commander and his Wife. She’s attended a school run by Aunts. She knows only a restricted life, and wonders what will be next for her.
How the three women’s story lines converge is the crux of this novel. Each of them is looking towards the future, trying to anticipate and control events. This is particularly true of Aunt Lydia, but the daughters try in their own ways. What happens and what we learn about them just wasn’t enough for me.
Too much hype
As The Testaments launched, I had FOMO, the novel version. I couldn’t resist the excitement, and the hope of something worthy. And, despite reading reviews from trusted friends, I felt the letdown of too much hype and not enough substance. I’ve spent a day or so attempting to determine why.
First, I think the setting was part of the problem. In Handmaid’s, the country of Gilead was completely new. It was beyond intense. It had gravity. Now we know what it looks like, sounds like, and can envision all its characters. For Atwood to make it seem new and exciting is well nigh impossible.
And those main characters
Second, the characters were a problem for me. Looking back to Handmaid’s, Offred was compelling and she meant something. She was me, in the absolute worst case scenario. Offred had suffered and the horrors she experienced didn’t stop through the whole book. She was a resister and a free thinking woman, like I picture I might be in her situation.
Aunt Lydia is the direct opposite. She is a collaborator, who chose to go along with the powerful people in Gilead. She amassed power and recognition on the backs of women like Offred. And yet, because Gilead is a closed society, Lydia must be circumspect and tell her story almost sideways, just in case she is found out. Perhaps this is why I never connected with her. Plus, she’s not someone I can ever imagine myself feeling sympathy with, no matter how Atwood might twist her plot lines.
The daughters haven’t suffered in the slightest. They’ve been taken care of, even when they’re facing frightening events like teen marriage or the death of someone they know. They don’t have the moral fire and strength of character that Offred did in Handmaid’s. Young women have a chance to develop and grow, but in this telling they aren’t there yet. When they are brave, it’s short lived and situational as they go from one setting to another. It’s not that kind of bravery where you have to decide to step off the cliff and find a way to save yourself on the way down.
My final conclusion
Ultimately, I think Atwood sold out to the excitement generated by the series. She tried to live up to expectations. Unfortunately this work isn’t as imaginative as the television series or her original novel. Consider me disappointed.