The Handmaid's Tale is one of those books that you always think you should have read but for some reason have never gotten around to. I bought myself a copy months ago so that I would finally read it but only got along to it now that I'm trying to read my entire collection of books so that I can give them away. Once I settle down again, though, I will have to get myself another copy because I absolutely loved it.
The Handmaid's Tale is set in a dystopian America that has recently undergone a major revolution. A fundamentalist theocracy has taken over and civilization has changed so as to be nigh unrecognizable. Taking their rules from a few passages in the Old Testament, the roles of men and women have been completely changed, a strange caste system having formed.
The heroine, known as Offred (for of Fred), is a handmaid for a Commander. Going off of an old Biblical precedent, households that are having problems with conceiving, are given a handmaid (if they're well off enough), a woman proven fertile that basically just serves as the womb of the family. She is not to be looked at, does nothing else but keeps herself comfortable, and once a month has to complete a ceremony with the Commander and the Wife in hopes of conceiving a child.
The novel is told completely through Offred's thoughts and memories. She tends to zone out and jump back in forth through time as she remembers the years before the new regime, her training to become a Handmaid once everything had changed and her present situation.
It's strange but The Handmaid's Tale is one of those books that doesn't really need a plot. The world building and exploration of social mores is more than enough to fill all the pages. I found, as I was reading, that I had no idea where the plot was headed because I didn't really know what the plot was, other than Offred's life and I was completely fine with that. The world of The Handmaid's Tale just completely sucks you in and you find that hours have passed while you've read and you hadn't even noticed.
Another thing I loved about the book is the framing device. Well, you don't really know there's a framing device until the end of the novel. There is a wonderfully meta epilogue that is told as keynotes from an academic conference years in the future, post-Handmaid, discussing Handmaid as a historical text. As someone who just finished her Masters in English, this was completely up my alley. I loved what this allowed Atwood to do with the story and the insinuations she could make without messing up the extremely personal first person narrative that was the novel. It was absolutely brilliant.
I can't believe this is the first Atwood I've read. I've been meaning to read her forever and if this is any indication of how great an author she is, I'm jumping in feet first. I absolutely adored Handmaid's Tale and could not recommend it highly enough. Please, please read.