This is probably sacrilege to say, but I’m not a big Margaret Atwood fan. I really want to be, but her writing is an acquired taste that is not mine. Even though everything about Alias Grace, the story of celebrated murderess Grace Marks, seems made for me — historical fiction, the intriguing, meticulously researched historical details, Atwood’s exquisite turns of phrase — her stream-of-consciousness style, unreliable narrators, and what can feel like random scene breaks from the narrative create a disconnect for me. I have such a hard time caring about the main characters and the lack of concrete endings in Atwood’s works leave me frustrated. I don’t mind “draw your own conclusion” endings, but I never feel like she, or her characters, give me enough information to do so in a satisfying way.
As in The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace dives into the stories, plights, and inner-workings of women and Woman, feminism, gender roles, etc. Grace Marks, a young immigrant servant who has overcome much and lost more, is accused of murdering her employers in 1843 Canada. She’s found guilty, sentenced to death, then declared insane and sent to an asylum for a time, before being relegated to a penitentiary for the rest of her life. Nobody is quite sure if she is innocent or guilty, was or is insane, or is also a victim. To that end, an intrepid young doctor is brought in to coax the truth from her in a mystery/true-crime deep-dive into the human psyche.
The show follows the book almost beat for beat, and yet I enjoyed the show a lot more. I almost never say that! I actually watched it first and was surprised to find I liked it so much. Sarah Gadon as Grace was wonderful and delivered what I later found in the book to be rather flat and hard to gauge lines in terms of tone and intent. Without her performance to guide the character, and connect the audience to her, I’m not sure I would’ve been very invested in Grace. Her performance stayed with me as I read the book. If not for that, Alias Grace might have been a very tedious read.
With all this in mind, I still recommend you both watch the show and read the book — in whatever order you wish. With many shows on a winter break, it’s definitely binge-worthy. If you like the book, you’ll like the show. If you enjoy the show, you’ll find the book fleshes out several of the characters, including Grace herself, making it a worthwhile read. And even if you don’t care for the book, you may still like the show, though I doubt it will be vice versa in this case.
You can buy Alias Grace from us right here.
Sarah Parker-Lee is a Los Angeles Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators board member & the Managing Editor of Kite Tales, a book reviewer for Dwarf+Giant, a content creator for non-profits fighting injustice all over the interwebs, & is available to edit your writerly endeavors. She writes YA alt. history, sci-fi, & is the creator of Dogs & Zombies: Dog’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. Twitterings: @SarahSoNovel, @DogsAndZombies