The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was very hard to read. Not because it was poorly written or boring — that’s not the case at all. The story was intriguing and I was invested in the narrator’s plight. The end felt like such a cliffhanger that I audibly yelled “are you serious!” which scared my husband, but then I realized there was more to the story in a new section with a different perspective (so if you hit a snag near the end, keep reading — it’s not just end of book acknowledgements!).
No, the reason this book was so hard to read was its terrifying plausibility. Most dystopian novels are set in a far off future, after wars and bombs and viruses and apocalypses have utterly changed the face of the earth and how society runs. Some dystopian novels are a chilling commentary on where the world could be headed (think: 1984), but this is so much more immediate. The changes, the leeching of power from the people — or from certain types of people — are so subtle at first, so insignificant that by the time enough people start to question things, it’s far too late.
In a lot of dystopian stories, there is one dictator or a small group of “bad guys” lording it over the masses. The majority of the people don’t agree with their leadership, but are too downtrodden and tired to fight back. In The Handmaid’s Tale, plenty of people agree with the new society. There are rumors of underground movements, sure, but most people seem supportive of the new order’s ideals.
The story is both intense and detached, told by a narrator who has nearly given up on everything that mattered to her in the world before. It is both resigned and angry, rebellious and cautious, disgusted and apathetic. It is a desperate warning wrapped up in inevitable possibility.
I had to take a lot of breaks while reading this one. It isn’t something you’ll binge-read for hours or enjoy while lounging on a beach. It’s a tale best told in snippets and whispers, with long silences to digest each piece of new information. It’s heavy with real-life foreboding, but I’m so glad I read it.
References to The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides kept popping up around me recently, so I decided to check out this modern classic for myself. I can’t deny I’m into darker/heavier stories like the synopsis suggests (5 sisters kill themselves within a single year) and was intrigued right off the bat by a collective narrator (the story is told by the neighborhood boys as a whole).
Because it’s a relatively slim paperback, I brought it along on vacation, intending to read it on the beach or during down-time between activities. This encouraged a lot of horrified feedback from my friends, who always ask what I’m reading. They then spent the week checking in by asking “how many girls have died now?” then following my answer up with a head shake and a “why do you read stuff like that?” That’s how I discovered pretty much my entire group of friends consists of happy, shiny people like my husband who prefer little depth and pain in their entertainment.
Leaving aside my friends’ responses, this is not a good beach read. In the way of most classics, the story needs your attention for good chunks of time. I found myself re-reading sentences and chapters and getting frustrated because I couldn’t devote more focus to it.
The story is beautifully written. There are some of the lovely descriptions and word-pictures that I love, and the fact that it’s like the neighborhood boys have sat me down to tell me their observations adds a touch of near-innocence to a tragic experience. Rather than being a novel about suicide, it’s more of a love letter to the sisters from the boys who grew up watching them.
It is sad. The parents are misguided and in my opinion arrogant in their negligence. The novel does discuss suicide, the ways the sisters end their lives, in just enough detail to make the reader uncomfortable without turning it into a caricature. Suicide should make a person uncomfortable to read about.
But it’s also a subject that is treated with respect. Eugenides captures the bewilderment and guilt and shock and grief that lingers over those left behind. The narrator shows how suicide affects a neighborhood, the process one goes through to try to understand something no one will explain outright.
It is a heavy book. It’s tragic and inevitable and beautiful. A modern classic, indeed.