Back at the end of 2021, I started a reading project based on the New York Times shortlist of the 25 books from which they asked their readers to pick "the best book of the past 125 years". I had read 11 of them, so 14 went on the to-be-read list. I'm making decent progress, I think. After reading this, this, this, this, this, this, this, and now The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. I have six to go.
I was prepared to dislike it. It was written in the 1980s, an era of panicked warnings about the Moral Majority Menace, etc,, so I was prepared for a feminist men-are-incipient-fascist-scum screed. Instead, it's a well-written saga of a woman, given the name "Offred", trapped in an intricately-designed dystopia named the "Republic of Gilead". Yes, the dystopia is based on a facile feminism, but Atwood does not beat the reader over the head with that.
Most of the action takes place in a horribly transformed Cambridge, Massachusetts. For example, the regime's transgressors are executed and hung on a wall surrounding Harvard University.
And why not? In an introduction to the edition I read, Atwood notes that Harvard was once a Puritan institution. And it's not difficult to imagine that the strident moralism afflicting us today could easily mutate into a 180° different scenario.
Offred tells her story in a disjointed first-person narrative, with her present plight interspersed with flashbacks to her pre-Gilead life with her husband and small daughter. Environmental catastrophe has apparently caused massive infertility. So after she's caught trying to escape all the oppression, Offred is assigned as a "handmaid" to a "Commander" for breeding purposes. And that breeding is carried out in a ritualistic and creepy fashion. (They assign this in schools? Really?) The regime's "Eyes" are everywhere, looking for the slightest sign of disobedience or insubordination.
No spoilers, but Offred's situation is precarious; her handmaid status is contingent on her possible fertility. If that goes off the table, she's destined for a worse fate. And neither she, nor the folks running the Gilead show aren't immune from urges to deviate from the official puritanism. Things build to a suspenseful climax.
And, since I went into the book not knowing much about the details, I was pleasantly surprised by the final section. And since I've been to a couple of those sorts of gatherings myself, I could only think, "The more things change…"