Content warning: major spoilers near the end of the review!
I usually really enjoy Margaret Atwood books, but this one left me feeling a little dissatisfied. The premise itself is very interesting. It’s a dystopian near future, where there’s been a horrible economic downturn and large cities are now ghost towns of vigilante youths and people living in their cars. The book follows Charmaine and Stan, a former middle class married couple that are running out of money and options. Charmaine works at a dirty diner/brothel and sees a commercial for an experimental community that offers jobs and security to everyone it accepts. So they sign up for Positron and Consilience – a duel community where residents live half the month in an actual prison and the other half in the adjacent community.
The plot begins to get sinister from there, where there are red hot affairs, spies, executions, and lifelike sex robots. And many Elvis impersonators, but yeah. It would take a long time to really detail all the plot because it is quite intricate. Atwood interweaves the perspectives of both Charmaine and Stan as different chapters throughout the book, and even if the audio book wasn’t narrated by both genders, I think it would be easy to follow along. They each have a unique voice and temperament, which comes across in their chapters. She also only gives the reader the same information that each character actually has, so as you are unfolding the story there is a layer of suspense as you don’t really know what’s happening.
So, yes, this book is masterfully crafted, as many of Atwood’s books are. But it just doesn’t deliver the same punch that many of the other books of hers that I’ve read have. A large part of that is the operation that Charmaine may or may not have undergone. When I believed she had, it felt icky. When it is revealed at the very end that she hadn’t, I just felt cold. I think particularly the reaction of Stan was unsettling. He is practically misogynist, and he is supposed to be the hero of this story. Well, not even practically – he is. He has several rape fantasies towards Charmaine and other women, and even when he believes that Charmaine is his willing (albeit lobotomized) sex slave, he is unhappy about it. He treats Charmaine like dirt, and is surprised that she had an affair and also “killed” him. For all of the book’s social commentary about the treatment of women, it doesn’t do a lot to propose an alternative.
I went back and forth on the rating for this book. It is definitely well-written, engaging, and thought-provoking. All good things that I look for in a novel. But that ending – and really, the final few chapters – brought it all down for me. It turns out that the book is divided into 5 parts, and each had been released over time through a service called Byliner. That service recently shut down, and so Atwood decided to release the book as a legitimate release, with the final 5th part included for the first time. It does make sense, then, why that ending feels really disjointed with the rest of the story. In the end, I decided not to weigh too heavily on the final chapters, but it definitely still colored how I feel in total.
This book fulfills the book published this year requirement for the challenge.