I have not read The Handmaid's Tale. I am not a huge dystopian fan. But I did meet this book's author, Christina Dalcher, on a critiquing website many years ago, where she gave me great feedback on a flash fiction piece (Bump, check it out here). I've followed her extremely prolific career since then, so of course I had to check out her debut.
This is a great concept. Set in the not-so-distant future, the women of America have been identified as the source of all problems, and have thus had their rights stripped away and their identities reduced to little more than wives and mothers. They can't work. They can't hold passports. They can't speak more than 100 words a day. And should a woman step beyond her bounds, she's publicly shamed and sent to what's essentially a concentration camp.
Chilling, right? The idea is brimming with potential. Dalcher explores the implications of this cultural shift, including how education changes (girls attend separate schools, where they basically take home ec all day), how the workforce changes (the nonconformist women in camps take over all the menial, unskilled labour), and, most importantly, how perceptions change. Boys are taught that a woman's job is to be a wife and mother. Boys receive financial incentives for marrying before 18 and producing offspring. As for the girls? They get a prize if they speak the least number of words at school each day, and they think it's normal.
It's exactly the kind of world we don't want to see realized, except in the pages of a novel, but unfortunately for me, that realization failed to occur. The meat and potatoes of the story should be the premise, which felt surprisingly underdeveloped. Most of the information we get about how this world came to be is delivered in the format of flashbacks, which felt clunky and disjointed to me. The characters, including Jean, the novel's narrator, to her son, her husband, her lover, the president, and so on, felt either flat or stereotypical, oftentimes both.
As for the plot, my suspension of disbelief evaporated right around the time it was revealed that the American government intended to poison Europe with a serum that would take away their ability to speak. That stepped too far outside the expectations of the genre for me. I was also unimpressed with the subplots revolving around Jean's lover and her unexpected pregnancy, which felt as though they were included to raise the stakes, and to justify Jean abandoning her family in favour of escape to Europe. The revelation that her husband (whom Jean considers weak-willed and passive) is part of the underground resistance to thwart the government only serves to make Jean even less sympathetic, especially when he's killed doing exactly that. Jean doesn't even grieve. She just takes off for Italy with her kids and her lover, and it's all okay because her son doesn't hate the man who tore his family apart.
Plot, characters, and lack of substance aside, my biggest problem with the book has to do with where it lays the blame. The fall of America is blamed on Christianity. Not religion in general, not extremists, just Christians. I can only imagine the backlash if the finger had been pointed at Muslims. The argument against it should be the same. Christian, Muslin, atheist, feminist... it's not the belief that's the problem, it's the enforcement of your beliefs on others. It's presuming you know what's best. That's not to say things are fine the way they are, or that we shouldn't fight for change. But saying one form of extremism is okay when another isn't? Kind of missing the point.