book reviews

My thoughts on The Testaments: The Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale…

I just finished reading The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s explosive sequel to her smash 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. I read and reviewed Atwood’s most popular novel a couple of years ago. I recently reposted my review of The Handmaid’s Tale, which you can find here. To be honest, I wasn’t all that hot on The Handmaid’s Tale when I first read it. I found it very depressing and had trouble finishing it. But then I started watching the series on Hulu and got hooked on that. When Atwood published The Testaments, I decided I might as well see how the story ends. Or does it end? It’s hard to tell.

I’ll admit, I put off reading The Testaments. I don’t read a lot of novels anymore. I prefer non-fiction books, even though I spent so many years reading fiction as an English major and adolescent bookworm. I finally decided to get busy with The Testaments when I watched the film version of The Handmaid’s Tale. You can find my commentary on the film here.

So… with all of that out of the way, what did I think of the sequel? I’m happy to report that I mostly found it enjoyable. It was a lot more readable and less depressing than The Handmaid’s Tale. Perhaps thanks to the TV series, I was able to form pictures in my mind of what the characters would be like. I also noticed that Margaret Atwood has a knack for being unexpectedly witty, and that made reading her book a delight.

For this book, Atwood focuses on several characters, rather than just the handmaid. The story is set more than fifteen years after the first story, and we’re introduced to characters who were just children when the first book ended. There’s Agnes, a teen who was raised by a high ranking commander and his wife, Tabitha, who is dying. Agnes’s father remarries, and her new stepmother, Paula, is intent on marrying her off to another high ranking commander, who’s been married a few times and seems to have a bad track record with keeping his wives alive.

There’s Daisy/Jade/Nicole… raised in Canada by people who ran a used clothing store. She thought they were her real parents until she turned sixteen, and the people she thought were her parents were suddenly killed when their car blew up. It’s at that point that she finds out who she really is, and why she must journey to Gilead. Nicole is young and snarky; she uses the Lord’s name in vain, which upsets Agnes.

Agnes has a friend named Becka, whose father is the best dentist in Boston who happens to have a penchant for child molestation. She decides she’d rather be an aunt than get married. Becka trades in her bright green dress– the dress for brides to be– for the dull brown dress the aunts wear. She learns how to read, and shows Agnes the way to avoiding marriage and a sure death sentence. Agnes gets a new name and eventually meets a long lost family member.

There’s Aunt Lydia, who seems like a terribly malevolent character at first blush, but then you get her backstory and find out she’s not as bad as she seems. She’s also super smart and witty, and I especially enjoyed some of her funnier quips. You find out that Aunt Lydia has come up with a “missionary program” in which pairs of women, known as “Pearl Girls”, try to recruit people to move to Gilead. Pearl Girls are destined to be aunts, like Lydia. Reading about the aunts is interesting. They reminded me of nuns. I would have liked for Atwood to develop Lydia even more, giving readers more of a look at how and why she turned from who she was into who she now is.

I think I might have found The Testaments even more compelling if it had been a bit more detailed. Because there are three characters to follow, there’s less detail about each protagonist. There’s also less shock value, because there’s less time and opportunity for it. In some ways, I’m glad for less shock value– again, I found this book less depressing than The Handmaid’s Tale. But it seemed to me, I don’t know, kind of rushed and incomplete in some ways. Atwood kind of glosses over what life is really like in Gilead. She could have added more detail about this world she’s created, with more about what the society is really like. That might have made her characters more multi-dimensional. I did enjoy the last bit, which is a look at the future– 2197– long after we’re all gone. Atwood makes mention of the need for sunscreen and insect repellant, a nod to the climate changes that will affect everyone if the world isn’t already destroyed by then. Who knows?

The three characters interacting together are interesting, especially when the reader learns who they really are and, more importantly, witness them learning who they really are. Atwood’s sequel is appealing, and will probably be satisfying to most readers. However, as a work in itself, I don’t think it’s quite as earth shattering as The Handmaid’s Tale is. I couldn’t help but realize that Atwood probably wrote this book for people who don’t necessarily read literature for fun. This book is very commercial and, as such, is a bit watered down. Consequently, it reads more like something the average person would enjoy, rather than something artistic, literary, and groundbreaking. In other words, it seems a little like Atwood “cashed in”, even though I’ll admit that I mostly enjoyed the book.

So, The Testaments definitely has commercial appeal and Atwood’s additions, no doubt, will be used in the series. But overall, the book is kind of lightweight and pedestrian, and it really seems like Atwood wrote The Testaments strictly for the masses. The Handmaid’s Tale, by contrast, is a better quality book because it’s obvious that Atwood really considered the plot for a long time and did her research. She took the time to craft the story using ordeals that real women have endured somewhere in the world at some point in time, giving The Handmaid’s Tale a more realistic feel, which made it a whole lot scarier and more compelling. The Handmaid’s Tale makes a solid, important, bold, political statement that may have felt far-fetched in 1985, but is definitely relevant in 2019. I’m not sure The Testament makes the same caliber of a statement, even if it’s more enjoyable to read.

If I were rating The Testaments on a five star scale, I think I’d give it three-and-a-half stars. The Testaments is definitely readable and interesting, but it doesn’t really stand up to the original story. It’s definitely not the same complex quality, and lacks the depth and shock and awe of the original. I found The Handmaid’s Tale much more difficult to read, but ultimately it’s a much better book because it’s been crafted from reality. The Testaments, by contrast, isn’t based as much in reality as it is speculation. And… as I’ve noticed on Amazon.com’s reviews, some people are upset that “June” (who was called Kate in the movie and was unnamed in the original book and remains unnamed in the sequel) gets very little mention in this sequel. So anyone who thinks they’d like to read this to find out about “June” is going to be very disappointed. Readers should remember that “June” doesn’t exist in Atwood’s book. That’s a character name that was given to her for the TV series. Atwood’s books aren’t the TV series, so readers shouldn’t go to the books for updates on what will happen in the series– although I do think aspects of The Testaments will be woven into upcoming seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale.

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