In a first for me, I watched the uber-popular Netflix series before downloading Atwood’s popular book, The Handmaid’s Tale. I consumed the TV series voraciously and was anxious to see if the original novel was just as good. I’m not sure whether seeing the series first enhanced or detracted from my experience, but it did provide visuals for what the characters looked like, how rigid the society functioned, and how brutal and unforgiving Gilead was. Watching the TV series also armed me with sufficient background on what life was like in Gilead and how rapid society went from what we recognize as normal now to what became normal under Gileadean rule, providing a much more robust view than I would have likely imagined on my own.
That said, reading Atwood’s original novel, while fascinating, was trying at times. Ofglen (the narrator) oscillated between the present, her memories of the past and internal dialogue in such a way that I often had to go back and re-read a few lines, or paragraphs, to see what exactly she was talking to. Likewise, Atwood’s use of quotes around dialogue was light (if any), not exactly sure why, which made it more difficult to follow when the reader was following a conversation or just Ofglen’s conversations with herself (which she often did).
From a creative standpoint, Atwood shines. It’s frightening to imagine the world as Atwood describes it–women living essentially as slaves to men (whether they are Wives, Jezebels, Marthas or Handmaids) and the fear mongering that controls society in Gilead. Atwood also gives the reader glimpses (which the TV series lacks) into the rationale spouted by those in power for their violent and brutal practices, which run inapposite to what would pass as “Christian” ideologies.
Interestingly, at the end of the book, Atwood employs a technique (also later used by Naomi Alderman in The Power) to bring the reader full circle with a “present-day” (in the future,mind you) look back at Gileadean times by academics and discussion of what became of the regime. While there are no answers as to what happens to Ofglen (does she escape? does she reunite with her husband and daughter?), Atwood goes to great lengths to tie up practical loose ends (how Ofglen would have kept such diaries during the regim, how any tape recordings could have been made, how they located/identified the Commander Ofglen “worked” for, etc.), which I enjoyed. And while I would have liked to know what happened to Ofglen and her family, I know that I would have found such a neat ending too pedestrian for this type of book and would have been annoyed. It’s good enough knowing that Gilead eventually crumbles and goes extinct, although we must suspect that it’s well after Ofglen is gone.
Do I wish I hadn’t seen the series prior to reading it? Hmmm… the jury is still out. I think without the series, I might have been a little lost as to what was going on in the beginning and the series gave life to Atwood’s novel in a way I don’t know Atwood does herself in the novel (i.e., the living conditions of Handmaids, Marthas, Wives, Aunts, Jezebels and Unwomen compared to Commanders.) Additionally, I might not have understood the full implications of Gilead rule had I not seen the series prior.
On balance, I’d give The Handmaid’s Tale an A-. Creative, disturbing, engaging and well thought-out. I enjoyed it and would recommend it to others who like books that push you to think, consider and question without providing so much guidance as to what results you might come to.