Menu Search

Living

The FMN Book Club

I hope you’ve all managed to finished the brilliant The Handmaid’s Tale because it’s time to assess, digest and move onto the next book for March….

But before I go onto to reveal what the next book is going to be, let’s talk about Margaret Atwood’s 1985 masterpiece. Yep, I’m calling it a masterpiece so I think you can tell I loved this book. The Handmaid’s Tale was the kind of book that was referenced a lot during my modern literature lectures at university but being a lazy student at the time (and barely managing to read everything that was set let alone extras!), I never bothered to go back and read it. But I’m so glad I have now. I’m already referencing it and recommending it left, right and centre and if you love alternative reality imaginings like Orwell’s 1984, this is one of the best.

The main thing that struck me reading The Handmaid’s Tale was its sheer genius and timelessness given it was written over thirty years ago and still feels relevant and relatable. The references to terrorism, women’s marches, overt sexualisation of society and increasingly misogynistic governments in the time ‘before’ felt hauntingly in line with what’s happening today in various parts of the world. I think that’s what makes Atwood such a literary power, is her ability to write utopian fiction that feels fearfully real even decades after it was written. Some of the scariest moments of the book for me were in the flashbacks to the time before the Gilead era, when Offred (or June as we think she was formerly known) suddenly lost her job and couldn’t access her money apart from via her husband. As the kind of everyday independence we in today’s Western world all take for granted, that sense of powerlessness felt all too imaginable and made me feel physically claustrophobic with her. In fact the whole book made me feel trapped just like Offred; it made me want to claw through the walls, the establishment and the awful Aunts just like untameable and slightly rogue (in a brilliant way) Moira. Restricting women and girls from learning to read felt like the cruelest, enslaved parts of the whole society to me (this book club alone should properly suggest I value the written word!), and again, something that parts of the developing world are still grappling with. If anything, this science-fiction novel made me more impassioned about current issues in the real world than before which I feel is kind of an amazing result of a dystopian piece of fiction.

Moira’s story was one of the most conflicting for me. Was her story the most tragic of the book because she was so desperate to escape and rally against her fate and in fact ended up a sex worker at Jezebel’s, or was she actually a hero for escaping in the way she did and was simply taking control over her body in the only way left in that society? I’m tempted to veer more towards the former but it felt like Atwood saw her as a real feminist hero but no matter how strong or courageous, she was simply a victim of a regime where the chance to really escape was almost at zero.

As a little side point, I also only noticed the lack of speech punctuation after I finished as I was so engrossed while reading. But just like Hemingway’s and McCarthy’s infamous disdain for speech marks (read The Road if you haven’t already), I felt like the stripped back punctuation reflected the puritanical, suppressed society and the need to to give away as little as possible in the Gildead society.

The idea of the women being shipped off to the colonies once their bodies were used up is a powerful message that needs no interpretation and is symbolic of issues we’re still grappling with today, namely that women are worth more than our outward appearance, effect on men and the potency of our reproductive organs and instincts. The subjugation of women and the whole ‘reproduction as a commodity’ element reminded me of Max Max : Fury Road (which I loved) but I thought it was all the in between moments that gave more away in terms of humanity and what Atwood was trying to say. The hypocrisy of the commander and his taste for sequinned burlesque outfits and seedy clubs is both angering but also humanising. I hated him for his part in creating the republic, and felt sorry for him all once (I know that might be massively polarising!). He clearly got no thrill out of using Offred as a breeding tool, but equally wanted her company, conversation, kisses and body when it was on less perfunctory, unfeeling terms. He wants her ‘to mean it’ and that to me really sums it up; Gilead’s laws and views of sex and relationships have stripped all the meaning and love out of human relationships, which, secondary to freedom, is essentially what so many of the characters are craving and chasing. Not just between men and women either; the handmaid’s are both desperate and fearful to find allies in each other and others, going so far as to chase the ghosts and sleep in the cupboards of their predecessors. Essentially I felt like Atwood was making it clear that indulgence, sex, love, frivolity and male and female companionship are part of human nature to a certain degree. and no matter the society, these things will seep through somehow, suppressing them only makes them seedier and us lonelier.

I loved how Atwood kept challenging us in terms of our perceptions too. Like when the handmaids are invited to do whatever they like to a supposed rapist and traitor and Offred stands back, horrified (as we are initially supposed to be) at the brutality of the attack, before Ofglen whispers to her that he is fact ‘one of them’ and they need to put him out of his misery. Serena Joy is clearly one of the most despicable characters in the book (along with mega-bitch Aunt Lydia), being a pioneer for the whole republic and a hypocrite once again when she suggest Offred sleep with Nick to get pregnant. But even Offred asks the question ‘Which of us is it worse for, her or me?’ in reference to Serena Joy’s presence for the commander and Offred’s ‘ceremony’. Atwood’s a master at making even the most deviant characters not totally devoid of sympathy when you look at them through flawed, human eyes. I thought the twist at the end perfectly summed up the paranoia and secrecy of the whole regime in such a brilliant way and I love that it ended on a high so in the end, humanity won out.

As ever, the idea with this book club is to share ideas and have a bit of a chat about the books as well as read them, so please do note down any favourite parts or points of interest in the comments so we can start replying to each other. No right or wrong views or points so don’t worry if you hated it or disagree with everything I’ve said – please say just that :)

The next book for this month is going to be Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter. I saw this book everywhere on Instagram, from ManRepeller to Reese Witherspoon (a known bookworm) and love trying new, first-time authors so wanted to give it a go. Really interested for you guys to read this one… Very different from The Handmaid’s Tale, way more contemporary and coming-of-age style, and any foodies or restaurant junkies out there will def find satisfaction in this one. I finished this one Jamaica but after that, I’ll be back in sync with you guys and reading in tandem!

 

Let me know all your thoughts, good and bad about The Handmaid’s Tale below and get your copy of Sweetbitter here. See you in a month!

 

Watch | Larson & Jennings
Pyjamas | Yolke 

Ph. by Frances Davison 

Share

Comments

  • Jovita Antanovich

    Reading a nice book is like meditation. Thanks for this nice post ;)

    Jovita from Black Vanilla
    http://www.b-vanilla.com

  • Will add it to my list of books to read, thanks for sharing! :)

    http://www.gloryofthesnow.com

  • Cass

    Adding this to the list of books to read. And I bought Sweetbitter a while back but haven’t read it yet! Guess I’ll have to move it up on the list.

  • Kathryn Yardley

    Thanks Lucy, really interesting to read your takeaway. I have to say I finished the book in a week and some of my first thoughts have started to fade! I have some bullet pointed thoughts below, note I have never read the book before.

    – I actually found it incredibly difficult to get into, I didn’t know what the general story was going to be so a good few pages in I stopped and read a quick online synopsis which described it as a dystopian future world.
    – Then it really started to flow and I gobbled it up in a few days

    – Like you, the bits which hit me most and were quite terrifying were the sequences “before”. When she lost her job, her credit card was stopped etc. Those moments filled me with a sense of panic. Her life before was so applicable to many of us, young love, job, home, money to then have those things LEGALLY taken away!

    – I really liked the Ofglen character and liked seeing that relationship develop and how she rebelled. You can almost apply her role today in fighting for womens rights and campaigning.

    – It sounds terrible but I didn’t think the commander was so bad. Like many he was doing what was expected of him in society and not entirely comfortable with it but not enough to buck the trend. He wanted to seek comfort and friendship but on his terms! He was easily pacified with companionship and validation. I think he believed he cared about her feelings and well being but not to a deep extent. He did what he thought was best without really thinking.

    – I really don’t think I got to know Nick enough. I will have to read again at some point as I didn’t understand his character. I guess this was purposeful as it means we never know whether he was a “goodie” or a “baddie” and if he came good at the end or sent Offred to her worst fate.

    – I find books without closure incredibly distracting! What happened to her!!

    Any thoughts on where you think Offred ended up?

  • I also LOVE this book! Incredibly relevant… frighteningly so!

    Gemma
    http://www.fadedwindmills.com

  • Didn’t manage to read the first one in time, but definitely going to pick up this next one on the list. Have been after a new read for ages – love this series

    Mel x

    http://mediamarmalade.com

  • Emma

    Loved reading your thoughts. I was just finishing the book when you posted about it being your choice for the book club, so it’s still pretty fresh in my mind.

    I absolutely loved it. I’ve read a bit of Atwood before but somehow hadn’t picked this up (The Blind Assassin is next on my list), and was quite glad to find this much less sexually graphic than I was expecting (I almost had to put Oryx & Crake down at times).

    Completely agree that it was all too relatable with a lot of what is going on in the world now, and it really isn’t too far fetched to imagine a Western society becoming a similar dystopia. Scary stuff. The way that no one really seemed to panic until it was too late sent shivers down my spine – I’d like to think that I’d try to get out when I lost my job and had my money cut off – but everyone staying at home and thinking things would go back to normal is exactly how it would play out.

    The only disappointing thing is not knowing Offred’s fate. I’d love there to have been an Epilogue letting us know that she crossed the border safely or found the whereabouts of her daughter and set off to find her. And what happened to Nick?

    Looking forward to reading Sweetbitter. I’d be curious for a while(I’ve read both good and bad reviews and couldn’t decide whether to give it a go)

    Emma xx
    @fieldandnest

  • Lauren Bunting

    So great to read your take on the book – like you, I thought it was brilliant and am, as a result, recommending it to everyone I come into contact with!

    I agree that it ended on a high, in a way, giving the reader a sense of hope that seemed very out of reach through the whole thing. Yet, the ending saw academics (males) discussing the identity of the commander, and barely touching upon any of the females in the story. I thought it was interesting that Atwood chose the commander to be the centre of attention at such a crucial point in the book – why were they so interested in finding out his identity, opposed to the protagonist whom the whole thing revolves around? The cynic in me tends to think that it is Atwood’s subtle way of suggesting that, although the age of Gilead ended, there is still an underlying patriarchy that views men as superior to women – and this is a constant the entire way through.

    I’ve written some brief thoughts on the book over on my blog http://www.aestheticalblog.co.uk/2017/02/the-handmaids-tale.html :) Getting back into literature and analysis makes me want to head straight back to university! Looking forward to the next one!

    Lauren xx | http://www.aestheticalblog.co.uk

  • The Gold Lipstick

    Absolutely love it!

    Mireia from TGL
    https://thegoldlipstick.com/

  • Sarah W

    It is so great to hear everyone’s thoughts and opinions. Like the majority, I absolutely loved The Handmaid’s Tale.

    Just to touch upon what you said, Lucy, about the lack of speech punctuation – I completely agree with you! I also feel like it highlights how fragmented Offred’s stories are. She is constantly moving from the past to present. Of course, we get clearer details into life before the dystopian environment, but I feel like it also shows how broken down Offred is. Each character (except maybe the Commander) has been broken by the system.

    I also find it amazing how Atwood strips away the humanity of each character in Gilead. Yet I find myself empathizing with each one. They were stripped of their jobs, their family and friends, and even their names. They were all placed into separate castes, yet they all have similar needs. Each character yearns for authentic human interaction – whether that be through a game of Scrabble or being physically loved.

    Part of me also feels like this is a message for women to continually fight for their rights. Offred’s mother was a hardcore feminist and was constantly fighting. But the next generation took those liberties for granted.

    Like you said, even though it was written in 1985, it is so relevant to today. I ask myself if Atwood wrote this book partly inspired by the political climate after the elections of Thatcher and Reagan. After the sexual liberation in the 60s/70s, time halted and almost went backwards. And after recent events, that is exactly how I feel today – taking one step forward and two steps back.

    Overall, this book left me feeling torn and also inspired. Inspired to appreciate what we have and to continue to fight for our female rights.

  • I’m sooo happy that you stuck with this idea of having book reviews!! I never had the chance to read, but either way I love this idea and it’s a great post!x

    Millie x
    queenmillie.blogspot.com

  • I love reading!! I’m always reading a book or two or three hahaha. I like your post! So interesting!

    Steal4Style.com

  • What a coincidence, I’m reading SweetBitter now so will have to join in!

  • Daria

    First of all, I loved the book. I read it in two days and it was the kind of book you find very difficult to put down (even when you’re about to miss your stop on the tube). Just like everyone here, I found it so timeless and a bit scary in light of some of the last year’s events. I agree that the part where she loses her job and her money is probably the most difficult one to read. I imagined it very vividly and to lose your freedom that way is exasperating. I also really liked the way Atwood presented Offred. I read somewhere that she did not want to have a “hero” in her book but someone more believable. I think that even though we’d all love to believe we would behave like Moira, given the circumstances probably more than one of us would just do as told and have an internal struggle rather than an external one, just like Offred. Overall, great choice of book. Thank you for starting the club! Can’t wait to start on the next book.

  • Frances Davison

    My first fmn comment (!)
    I love this book and so glad you prompted me to return to it – I think it’s my favourite Atwood novel.

    One of the things I think she writes so well, as you touched on, is the feeling of potential helplessness and the imbalance of power that women experience daily – which escalates slowly then explodes in the story. It’s a book that I’ve recommended to so many people and it frustrates me that so many men are unwilling to pick up a novel which is touted as feminist literature – Atwood can be so subtle in providing an incredible insight into what it is to be a woman and the tensions we live with every day.

  • Already read it but yes, it’s amazing! xx

  • Sarah Shenston

    Love this! Where is your gorgeous black and white throw from please? x

  • Victoria Archer

    Hi Lucy. First of all, thankyou for this book club. I read alot but this also gives more purpose to my reading. I had never heard of The Handmaids Tale until you suggested it as the first book, but am so glad you did – I was obsessed. It took me a few weeks to read (my daughter has been very poorly in hospital so I read small amounts when I could) however I think, in this case, that’s a good thing, because I’ve been able to digest it in between.
    Everything you and others have said, I totally agree with, so I won’t repeat the same sentiments. However, I do wonder if the Commander actually was projected more as a toy to Offred, rather than someone in total power. He was in control, because of they way Gilead was run, however, he seemed to weakened. He was human, and craved emotion and obviously saw something in Offred that he was drawn to; he knew she could provide what he wanted. But I almost feel like perhaps he gave up an element of his control over to Offred, which she then took advantage of, thereby strengthening her role as a feminist. It’s just a thought, but I’d love to know what you think about this.

    Moira – awesome rebellious character. She knew she had a choice and made it happen for herself.

    Serena Joy & Aunt Lydia – stone cold emotionless control freaks.

    Ofglen – Vulnerable and weak but tried to fit in for the sake of her own safety.

    The Commander – felt some empathy for him, he too wanted a normal life and wanted this for others.

    Offred – a body, a baby-maker, a human craving emotion and closeness, perhaps a procrastinator at times, lonely, clinging onto hope and the unknown, eventually though loses all hope, and leaves without a struggle, towards the unknown…..or does she?! Maybe she knows where she’s going, and that actually it’s towards a new life.

    I too noticed the lack of speech marks – the symbolism of this, if this indeed is the reason (and I don’t see why not) is a very clever concept.

    Conclusion – Margaret Atwood is an incredible writer and this book is a timeless, insightful and frankly terrifying story of how very different our lives could be.

    I’m very grateful to you for introducing Margaret Atwood to your readers! Sweetbitter is on its way by trusty Amazong Prime, for me to start tomorrow x