In 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale was published as a terrifyingly possible prophecy about the dangers of the small, seemingly insignificant choices that can lead even the most advanced, modern societies into a world that barely resembles the one they knew. Margaret Atwood is famous for saying that everything which occurs in the dystopian novel is pulled from real, recorded historical events—meaning that the fictional society known as Gilead could happen anywhere, even at home where we feel most safe.
Legions of readers followed Offred’s story as a Handmaid in Gilead, one of many women forced to bear and relinquish children into the care of their captors. Offred’s first child, born in a free America, is stolen from her before the novel begins, and when the novel ends her fate is unknown, faded into darkness as the van she steps in may be taking her to freedom, or to her doom.
In the thirty-five years since its publication, The Handmaid’s Tale has become an international bestseller and received the television treatment as a Hulu show starring Elizabeth Moss. But the fascination with the story has only led to more questions: what happened next? Did Offred survive? Did she have another child? How was Gilead created, and even more urgently: how did it fall?
The Testaments (which was B&N’s September Book Club pick!) is Atwood’s answer to those questions: a new novel, taking place fifteen years after the conclusion of one that started it all. From the perspective of three different women (two within Gilead, one beyond its borders), the story follows both the early origins of Gilead and its essential founders as well as a dangerous plot to destroy the country from within.
Without spoiling the revelations learned in the story, I can say The Testaments is a truly satisfying novel for both fans of the original book and the show (and fans of just the show can read it and will not be lost for a second) and answers most, if not all, of the questions offered above. The characters are complex and flawed, and their arcs—both redemptive and tragic—are wholly satisfying. For example, the architect of Gilead’s downfall will be a delightful surprise to fans of the show, and provides a future potentially award-winning turn for at least one actress who currently appears on it, should the show decide to pursue The Testaments as a continuation. But I will say this: If The Handmaid’s Tale was a prophet of doom for women’s rights, The Testaments is a beacon of hope. It is a manifesto on female courage and resilience, one that I think many readers will find welcome in 2019.
When you finish it, check out our readalike picks below!
Vox, by Christina Dalcher
In The Testaments, the world is defined by keeping women subjugated, mainly in the name of reproduction. But in Vox, female subjugation has another, insidious element: women are no longer allowed to speak more than 100 words a day, or a device embedded into their skin will shock them. Jean McClellan, a former cognitive linguist (who lost her job as a result of these new laws) watches as her young daughter already knows to silence herself, expecting rewards for how little she speaks, and her teenage son sinks into dangerously abusive territory where he sympathizes with the government more than his own mother. But when an opportunity arises for Jean to regain her voice and fight the oppression from within, she knows this is her one and only shot to make a better life for her daughter and protect her only son from himself. She must engage in lies and deceit with the people she loves most in order to save them—that is, if she’s not caught first.
Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas
In an America eerily similar to that of Gilead’s beginnings, abortion is no longer legal. That of course doesn’t mean that people aren’t obtaining abortions, it means they are going outside the system, to women such as Gin, an herbalist who lives on the outskirts of a small Oregon town…who suddenly becomes a national spectacle when she is accused of and tried for providing such a service. Her story interweaves with that of three others: a single woman desperately trying to get pregnant before the law only allows married couples to have children; a mother of two in a dangerous marriage; and a teenage girl who finds herself pregnant with nowhere to turn. The characters are what make this novel memorable, as they all go to great lengths to get what they want in a world that forbids them to want anything.
Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers
How is a YA historical novel that takes place during Medieval France a readalike for The Testaments? Well, let me tell you: because in 14th Century Brittany, life for women was kind of like a dystopia. The main character of Robin LaFevers’ brilliant Grave Mercy is about to be married off to a terrible man and she has no say in the matter. In fact, women during this time often turned to convents and took sacred vows in order to gain more autonomy and freedom than they would have had as married mothers. That is what Ismae does—to escape bondage, she swears to serve the God of Death and in his service, kill other terrible men who deserve it. The elite sisterhood of assassins she joins makes her feel powerful for the first time in her life…until she falls in love with a man she doesn’t entirely trust. Romance, swordplay, and feminism all in one series—of which there are five books to binge!
Vengeful (Vicious #2), by V.E. Schwab
No one writes villains the way V.E. Schwab does. The first book in this duology, Vicious, focused on male villainy, when two friends at college discover the secret to developing ExtraOrdinary superpowers and as a result, become enemies each bent on destroying the other. The second book, though (which should technically be read after Vicious for continuity’s sake) is all about female anger, villainy…and justice? This is where it connects to the world of The Testaments for me; it’s a novel in which we see female characters do terrible things in order to attain justice. In Vengeful, women take center stage and are determined to use their ExtraOrdinary abilities not only for self-preservation, but for ultimate power, no matter the cost.
Hardcover $17.99 | $19.99
This is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Readers of The Testaments who love watching the ultimate takedown of Gilead from within will love this unique sci-fi novella about two agents on opposite sides of a war throughout time. Red and Blue are supposed to be enemies, but when they start exchanging letters , that begins to change. With literally out-of-this-world prose that sets the pages on fire, the love story that unfolds against the backdrop of tyrannical rule is an unforgettable reminder that even in the darkest of times, love wins.
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
Gilead’s beginnings are not just rooted in patriarchy, but in a global health crisis: plummeting fertility rates force people into extreme panic, during which a fringe group seizes control. Station Eleven also begins with a health crisis, but a different one: an flu pandemic that ravages most of modern society, forcing the world into a version of the Dark Ages where people search for pockets of the civilization they once knew. This literary page-turner follows a group of actors as they perform Shakespeare twenty years after the collapse of modernity. When a dangerous prophet threatens the peaceful existence they’ve managed to carve out for themselves, the survivors have a choice to make that could determine their survival.
The Farm, by Joanne Ramos
Possibly the most direct readalike on the list, this novel is about women who have children for other women in a place known as the Farm. The deal is this: a huge payday in exchange for nine months of your time growing a baby that, once birthed, will go to the person who paid for it. Jane agrees to be a ‘Host’, but soon realizes there’s another, hidden cost to this agreement: she can’t leave as long as she’s pregnant, or she forfeits the fee she so desperately needs to help her actual family, the one she loves beyond the walls of the Farm. An eerie, modern approach to similar questions addressed by Atwood’s novels.
What did you think of The Testaments?