There is an incredibly not fun game to be played called “The GOP Platform or The Handmaid’s Tale”? In fact, search for “the handmaid’s tale too relevant” in Google and you’ll find over 15 pages of think-pieces, lists and interviews where that Big R Word “Relevant” is used. The producers of the new series certainly never expected it to feel as real as it currently does, turning a cautionary dystopia into actual legislature to fiercely resist.
So if you caught the Atwood bug again but just can’t bring yourself to watch Offred’s story yet, here are Margaret Atwood’s other offerings. I can’t guarantee they’ll make you feel better on our slow march towards dystopia, but her characters will keep you great company on the journey.
Surfacing (1972) – There is one part of this novel that I recall so clearly, so often: A woman brings her boyfriend and married friends to a remote cabin in search of her father, who has disappeared. One morning, she finds her female friend up very early, putting on makeup. Her husband, the friend explains, prefers to see her at all times with her face on. He gets angry with her if not. I don’t remember much more about this sequence, but the visceral reaction I had to this idea as a teenager stuck with me, challenging anyone I would date and my feelings about my own looks. The whole novel is like that, delving into societal and bestial ideas of coupling, marriage and peace.
The Robber Bride (1993, finalist for the 1994 Governor General’s Award and shortlisted for the James Tiptree, Jr. Award) – It’s so interesting to place this story, loosely based on Brothers Grimm The Robber Bridegroom, side by side with The Handmaid’s Tale. Instead of women so enslaved by people in power that they literally rip one of their own to pieces, The Robber Bridegroom shows how willingly we can allow those close to us to tear our life apart. It’s almost a soap opera masquerading as psychological horror, or vice versa. I’m pretty sure I read all 528 pages in one sitting.
Alias Grace (1996, winner of the 1996 Giller Prize, finalist for the 1996 Booker Prize and the 1996 Governor General’s Award, shortlisted for the 1997 Orange Prize for Fiction) – Did a mild-mannered maid murder her master and head housekeeper? Can a young doctor make a name for himself by learning the truth? Is Grace Marks a reliable narrator? Can Atwood weave the symbolism behind quilting patterns into women’s historical identities? In this novel based on real events, class systems and domestic life clash and we’re left to wonder whose truth the story is really trying to unpack. [We have a post about the very cool TV series right here.]
Stone Mattress (2014) – Each one of these short stories is a gem. They are modern fairy tales of the darkest, most murderous kind and simply delicious to read. It begins with “Alphinland,” and a fierce snowstorm that changes an author’s relationship with her deceased husband. This is the first of three connected stories stemming from young radical artists, now aged into their various degrees of success. “The Freeze Dried Bridegroom” is almost blue collar noir. I hung on the narrator’s every word even as he took deliberate steps towards his demise. Yet it is the title story “Stone Mattress” that continues to spook me months after reading. A professional widow is well-versed in subtle murder, but finds her first cold blooded attempt more difficult – at first. Many of these stories call back to other Atwood novels (the three women in The Robber Bride, for instance), so are especially fun.
The Blind Assassin (2000, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize and finalist for the 2000 Governor General’s Award, shortlisted for the 2001 Orange Prize for Fiction.) – A tale of sisters, the men in their lives and a legacy in words. The Blind Assassin is set against important historical events in Canada during the 1930s and 40s. Truth hides inside journals as Iris comes to understand that she, not her sister, is the protagonist in the novel within the novel. The real story she reveals, however, is much darker and dimmer than expected, causing riffs in familial relationships into her senior years.
The Penelopiad (2005, nominated for the 2006 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature and longlisted for the 2007 IMPAC Award)
“Now that I’m dead I know everything.”
That’s pretty much all you need to know to enjoy The Penelopiad. I’m sure that the dutiful wife of Odysseus and the fate of her suitors and handmaidens always struck a nerve with Atwood, and so one day she took charge of Penelope with her fiercest weapon: her words. If you only know the bare minimum of The Odyssey, you’ll be fine. If you’ve read it and all the critique that goes along with centuries of studying the acclaimed story, you’ll nerd out. I can’t claim that it completely satisfied my Penelope itch, but I got to scratch it with Atwood’s wit, and that’s plenty for a great read.
The Heart Goes Last (2015) – I heard Atwood’s interview with the now retired Diane Rehm when this book came out, and it sounds utterly fascinating. If you and your partner are living in a car during a financial crisis, and are offered free room and board every other month, would you take it? Six months of the year you’re in a kind of suburban utopia, and your only payment is to live the other half of the year in prison. Stan and Charmaine take the offer, but soon extramarital affairs with their “Alternates,” (those living in their home the months Stan and Charmaine are in prison) and more details about the prison industry make for some uncomfortable truths. This book received very mixed reviews, so if you feel strongly about Atwood, then I suggest you read it and make up your own mind.
There are plenty more Atwood novels, short story and poetry collections to devour instead of watching the Hulu series.* However, if you do get sucked into the phenomenal storytelling, you may want to suck your more conservative friend into it too. Art has been known to open people up to ideas and perspectives they haven’t considered before…..
*To be honest, I’m not sure even Ralph Fiennes can replace Robert Duvall as The Commander in my mind (and if that doesn’t age me….).