Grumpy Bulldog Book Reviews site. This is an older book but it's one of those that when I read it I realized it has some relevance for 2012.
It's just as well I didn't read this book when I bought it in December 2011 on sale. I probably would have scoffed at the idea that a hard-line fascist patriarchy could take over what was once America. Reading it in May 2012 now I'm not nearly as skeptical. Hearing the hard-line stances of those like Rick Santorum and Rush Limbaugh infamously calling a woman a "slut" for wanting birth control makes me think there is a portion of this country that would enact something just like Atwood describes.
What she describes in "The Handmaid's Tale" is a patriarchal society where most women are stripped of all rights. There's a caste system of sorts enacted. At the top are the "Wives" who are (obviously) the wives of high-ranking officials in the new regime. There are also "Econowives" who are the wives of lesser officials. The Wives have servants called "Marthas" who toil away in the kitchens and so forth. And then since most Wives are older and infertile, there are the Handmaids. The Handmaids are tasked with giving birth to a baby, which is then turned over to the Wife to raise.
Now since this is a hard-line religious establishment where doctors and scientists are killed or locked up, they can't use scientific means like artificial insemination. Instead there's a whole bizarre ritual that takes place every few nights that involves the Commander (the male head of the household) getting it on with the Handmaid while the wife is present. There's nothing seductive or kinky about all of it; it's all pretty sterile, which might be why it's ineffective.
The person telling the tale is a Handmaid known as Offred (as in she's Fred's property). She describes life in her household and at other intervals talks about life before the new order took over. In that life, Offred had a real name and a husband named Luke and also a daughter. She had a feminist mother and a lesbian friend named Moira.
I think if you want to complain about anything it's that not a lot really HAPPENS in terms of plot. So if you were looking for a taut thriller or anything like that, then you wouldn't enjoy this. The obvious point of comparison would be "1984". I would also say that was a better book in that Orwell has more of a story arc concerning Winston being seduced by the "rebellion" and then betraying the one he loves in order to save his own skin, thereby crushing his spirit. (Oh, whoops, sorry for the spoilers.) While Atwood's book is riveting, the world she builds doesn't really go anywhere. Offred isn't forced to make the same choices as Winston. And I have to say I found the last 6% or so, the epilogue, to be a little corny.
Still, with the recent events I already mentioned, the hard-line anti-abortion laws being enacted in "red states" and so forth, I think this is an important book to read (or reread) at this point in history. Especially if you're female you should read this to see the worst that can happen.
So there you go. About the only thing that does give me hope is that as the years go by here we'll see the old establishment of people who grew up in the 30s-50s giving way to younger people who grew up in the 70s-80s, post-Roe v Wade, post-sexual revolution, etc. By that I mean people like me who were born in the 70s and grew up in the 80s we didn't live with all that stereotypical "Leave It to Beaver" bullshit where mom was supposed to be home every day cooking and cleaning and whatnot. A lot of our moms had jobs, though not mine. But I've had female bosses and co-workers everywhere I've worked, so it doesn't really threaten me that women have rights the way it does Rush Limbaugh and other old white guys. So maybe people from my generation won't feel the need to try and oppress everyone who is different from them. Or we'll find someone else to oppress.
Tuesday is another scintillating Two-Fer!