Wednesday, November 8, 2017

REVIEW: The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood's THE HANDMAID'S TALE was the first dystopian novel I ever read. It was a book my mother recommended, and like some of my Mom's other recommendations, I found it both brilliant and brutal. As a matter of fact, Atwood as an author is both brilliant and brutal. She takes a hard look at humanity's worst tendencies, and she builds grim and harrowing narratives from them. The hardest thing about Atwood's fiction, in my experience, is how possible it all seems.

All of that aside, she is a fabulous author. Her characters are real and compelling, and her storytelling keeps you turning pages. Want to see one of the things I'm most proud of as an author? From RT Book Reviews five years ago (shameless plug alert!):

It takes guts to kill your heroine before page one, and Fisher has that in spades. Paying special homage to Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (in particular, the moving Steven Soderbergh/George Clooney film adaptation) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Fisher’s sci-fi romance debut thoroughly impresses. In Elizabeth’s struggle to reconcile the mystery of her existence as a ghost, Fisher offers a pitch-perfect balance of a cohesive scientific vision with poignant, naked emotion.

Seeing Atwood's name in the review for my debut was pretty special. There is a Latin phrase that Offred (June), the handmaid, discovers scratched on the wall of her closet that I had my heroine Elizabeth also inscribe in English in her "closet": Don't let the bastards grind you down. (And by the way, happy bookaversary, GHOST PLANET!)

In case you haven't read THE HANDMAID'S TALE, or know little of the plot, I will give you the setup. This summary is based on the Emmy Award winning Hulu TV adaptation of the novel, which I am reviewing here. It won EIGHT Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Drama Series, out of 13 nominations.

The story focuses on the trials of Offred ("of Fred"), whose real name is June. After a US civil war, the nation of Gilead is established by a fanatical religious group. Due to environmental factors, it has become very difficult to conceive and carry fetuses to term. Fertile women (whether married or single) are rounded up by the new government and farmed out to the ruling families to be used as surrogate mothers. This slavery is justified in many cases by the fertile women being judged "fallen." In June's case, she has had an affair with a married man—they eventually married and had a child. Her family attempts to escape to Canada, but they are caught. June's husband is shot, and her daughter is taken away from her. June is given an ear tag (yes, like a cow), sent to Handmaid school for a horrifying glimpse into her new reality, and finally placed in the home of Commander Fred Waterford and his wife Serena Joy. Serena was once a career woman and author, and she served as a founding member of this new society—one in which she is no longer permitted to read, write, or participate in government.

The Hulu adaptation stars Elisabeth Moss (MAD MEN's Peggy Olson) as June. I watched this 10-episode series over the course of the last couple of weeks. I have to say, I would totally have binge-watched this show, grim as it was, had my husband been interested in watching it (coward!). It was beautifully shot, with superb performances from Moss and from Yvonne Strahovski, who played Serena Joy. Both faced the challenge of portraying women who themselves were always acting. In fact, all the women in this series were superb, and I must also give a nod to Madeline Brewer, whose performance as the broken Janine was heartbreaking. My one small knit was I did not find the male characters as compelling, though Joseph Fiennes is chillingly unpredictable and hypocritical as Commander Waterford.

The way they drew this single novel out into a full 10 episodes was to show the back story of a number of the characters in flashbacks. Particularly interesting was the history of Serena Joy, who had been an activist at one time in her life, and in this new world is relegated to the roles of hostess, domestic manager, and wife (though sex for fun is no longer allowed, so she is wife in name only). She also only gets to wear green dresses! She's lucky it's a good color on her. At the end of the series you are left wondering, was that monster always inside her, or is that just one of the potential side effects of constricting and oppressing such a bright and passionate woman? 

Since so far all I have talked about is scifi, I will say there is some romance in the series. Through flashbacks we see how June met and fell in love with her husband, and in the current storyline there is a character she turns to for comfort—and that relationship turns out to be key in a number of ways. But this is no SFR, so be ye warned.

I finished the series last night, and the ending was similar to the novel's. I know there is a second season coming, so I am left wondering what it will be about! I assume that it will explore beyond the ending of the book, and based on the quality of this first season, I will definitely be tuning in.

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Hosted by 5 Science Fiction Romance authors with 8 RWA Golden Heart finals and a RITA final between them. We aim to entertain with spirited commentary on the past, present, and future of SFR, hot topics, and our take on Science Fiction and SFR books, television, movies and culture.