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?