The Testaments (and a little catching up)

I  said for years that I blogged about every book that I read because if I didn’t make it a habit and blog every time, I’d stop blogging altogether. I’m all in or not in at all. And that proved to be the case when, back in June, I reread King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett while traveling in Scotland and decided I had nothing to say about it. Same with the next book, and the next. And then, when I had something to say, the habit of saying it was lost. I tried sharing reflections on Litsy and Goodreads over the last few months, but none of those venues were as satisfying as my own space. I don’t know what that says about me, but it surely says something.

Anyway, I read The Testaments by Margaret Atwood this week and decided I wanted to chew it over a bit more and give others a chance to weigh in and add their own thoughts. And that is, at heart, what blogging has always been about for me. Chewing things over publicly, so others have a chance to add to my thinking. So, here I am.

I was not as excited or filled with dread about this book as many were. I liked The Handmaid’s Tale a lot but always found the individual elements (all drawn from real life) more convincing than the whole of the world Atwood creates. I haven’t watched the TV series, but my fairly recent reread of the book, the part that stuck with me most was how quickly the world turned, despite the warning signs that some (not all) chose to ignore. That is maybe the most terrifying aspect of the book, and it remains the case here.

Set 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale. This book follows the story of three women, one of whom (Daisy) grew up in Canada, one of whom (Agnes) grew up in Gilead, and one of whom (Lydia) was an adult when Gilead was founded. Lydia is the one character who appears in the earlier book, where, as an aunt, she has the job of training and disciplining the handmaids. Her story is told in a personal journal, being kept for an imagined future reader. Daisy and Agnes are providing after-the-fact testimony.

The plot is interesting enough, with a couple of revelations that weren’t all that much of a surprise to me. Some elements of it (such as Daisy’s journey to Gilead) started to make less sense as I thought about them more, but it’s an exciting enough ride as it happens, and that’s good enough for me these days. There was sufficient suspense to keep me reading. Will Agnes be forced into an unhappy (or worse) marriage? Will Daisy be able to do the tasks asked of her? And what’s Lydia up to anyway?

It’s Lydia’s character that is the most interesting and complex. I’ve seen some complaints that she, the villain of the previous book, gets a redemption arc here, but I don’t think that’s necessarily accurate. Her actions are explained, but whether they’re wholly justified is left unclear. Certainly, her in-the-moment choice to save herself and become part of Gilead’s ruling structure makes sense. It’s not the noble choice, but when torture and likely death are the only other choice … well … we’d all like to think we’d act differently, but it might be harder than we’d expect in the moment. Self-preservation is a powerful force.

And, the reality is that, by accumulating power, Lydia may be the only one able to take down Gilead (and we know from The Handmaid’s Tale that Gilead will fall). To accumulate power, she must do terrible things and put other women through hell. None of that is okay. But her position proves to be useful in the end.

During the course of the book, she also uses her position to help other women. She gets an abused girl out of a marriage that paralyzes her with terror. She gets another out of a marriage that will almost certainly prove fatal, given the husband’s track record with wives. Yet in both of these cases, her motives are murky because saving these girls serves her larger purpose. That’s especially clear because, in saving one girl from a fatal marriage, she consigns another to that same fate.

What I’m left wondering is how committed she really is to taking down Gilead. And for what reasons? Is her motivation righteous, or was she just playing a long game to get back at her past tormentors? Did she want to see Gilead fall, or did she want to see these men suffer? And, if the end result is a good one, does it matter? And to whom? The women who are saved, or those who are unwillingly sacrificed?

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14 Responses to The Testaments (and a little catching up)

  1. Jeanne says:

    How quickly the world turned is the scariest part of The Handmaid’s Tale for me, too. I think a lot about how she says they were all inside, watching TV. I think about that every Saturday when I stand on the town square with a sign, to say that this is not how the world should be. I also think often of how she looks at a dishtowel in the kitchen of her commander’s house and thinks it looks just like one she used to have in her own kitchen. The Testaments makes the quickness of the change even scarier, because I always thought (like we tend to think about Jews in Germany before WWII) that June could have gotten out if she’d left when her credit card was canceled, but we see that the woman who became Aunt Lydia was already being imprisoned at that moment.

    I think the point of Aunt Lydia is that we are unworthy to judge her motivations or her results. She does the best she can. At least she does something. I can’t tell you how disgusted I am at the number of people who are doing nothing right now. Including voting–the turnout in my district this week was 20%.

    This is one of the bits about Aunt Lydia that I quoted in my own review (Sept. 11, 2019):
    “How can I have behaved so badly, so cruelly, so stupidly? You will ask. You yourself would never have done such things! But you yourself will never have had to.”

    Thanks for sharing your ideas about this book. I’ve been longing for other women I know to talk about it.

    • Teresa says:

      I like that way of thinking about Aunt Lydia, and the quote you picked out illustrates the point nicely. For me, watching what she went through in those first days made it hard for me to blame her for becoming who she became.

      The whole thing about doing something or not, or what to do, or how to respond to others’ choices, is so difficult. I get really frustrated at people who don’t vote or even pay attention to what’s going on. But I also know I could be doing a lot more than I do, so there are probably people out there who could get just as frustrated with me. These choices can be difficult, and Lydia was definitely in a no-win situation she had no time to prepare for.

  2. I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale twice, once recently, and I’m still deciding if I want to read The Testaments. I probably will, eventually. Thanks for the honest review.

  3. Rohan Maitzen says:

    More a general comment, since I haven’t read The Testaments: I understand exactly what you mean about not having something to say about a book — though I have also found that just sitting down to write something, anything, about a book on my blog often leads me to discover I have something to say, if only about the experience of reading it. But at the same time I do sometimes finish one–and in fact did so today–and think writing about it is just not something I would look forward to. Your comment that for you, writing publicly means a chance for other people to add to your thinking really resonates. With what seems like a fairly general decline in commenting on blogs directly, I do sometimes wonder how well blogging fulfills that wish / need / hope.

    Anyway, I was happy to see an update from you here and I enjoyed reading your comments on The Testaments. It has been ages since I even read The Handmaid’s Tale (I think it was just a bit too ubiquitous on Canadian reading lists back in my u/g days and that put me off it). What you say about ignoring warning signs does seem uncomfortably timely, yet at the same time it’s so hard to sort out the genuine warning signs from the constant catastrophizing.

    • Teresa says:

      I always found the process of sitting down to write being enough to bring the thoughts, just as you describe. But something clicked this summer and I just didn’t want to put in the time and effort.

      I know just what you mean about warning signs vs. catastrophizing. I think sometimes about a Jewish acquaintance who told me his European ancestors were considered paranoid and ridiculous for getting out when they did. Yet they turned out to be right. But I’m not in a position where I could get out if I felt I were in danger, so that sort of thinking just leads to paralysis and terror. For me, it seems healthier and more useful in the long term to act in ways that seem like they could have an effect without using up all my time, energy, and funds. Worrying about the worst-case scenario is borrowing trouble that I can’t handle. (That doesn’t always stop me, but I try to keep to the healthier mindset.)

      • Teresa says:

        Oh, and also, I have the same question you do about how well blogging fills the need for conversation these days. Twitter could be better for that kind of conversation, but so much depends on when you happen to be online. It’s so much more ephemeral than a blog. I know I’m not good about commenting these days, but I’d like to get back in the habit.

  4. Amy says:

    I read this too and didn’t love it, but don’t regret reading it. I felt very much like Atwood had an ending she was gunning for and she was going to get there through any means possible. In other words, it felt really forced to me and not entirely plausible.

    • Teresa says:

      I can definitely see that when I thought about the plot. There were a few points where the plan didn’t make sense. (Why send the real Nicole into Gilead, for example?) It didn’t bother me much while I was reading, though, so I ended up ok with it on the whole. Not at the top of my Atwood list, but there was enough good stuff there for me to recommend it.

  5. Care says:

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts. I haven’t read it yet but am fascinated by everyone’s reactions.

    • Teresa says:

      It is interesting to see the conversation about it. I do think some of the Booker Prize controversies have affected the conversation and made it hard to step back and evaluate the book on its own terms.

  6. I’ve only read the first part of your post because I’ve just finished rereading The Handmaid’s Tale and am about to begin The Testaments (for Margaret Atwood Reading Month). But I do agree that there were parts of the story which were frightening when it was published and that they still hold that strength of emotion for me too.

    • Teresa says:

      The original story does hold up well. I’ll be curious to know what you think of the sequel. It’s a very different book, but compelling in its own way.

  7. I so agree with your thoughts- in the Handmaid’s Tale the quick establishment of Gilead was terrifying for me too :)

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