Book 1 of 100: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's Tale CoverTo kick off my year of 100 books, I started with Margaret Atwood‘s brilliant work of speculative fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale. I’d like to say that I elected to start with this book because I’m probably the last person on Earth to have read it or because my husband has been very nicely asking me to read it for at least a year. The truth is, it was the first one on top of the giant pile of unread books I pulled from my bookshelf, and once I flipped open the first page and started reading, there was no going back.

There are a lot of truly excellent novels in the world that I value for their literary merit (a few by Saul Bellow and V.S. Niapaul come to mind), but I don’t find them to be compulsively readable. The Handmaid’s Tale was not a work of that variety. I carried this book with me everywhere for three days until I finished it. I read it while on the treadmill at the gym (yup, I became one of those people), while standing at the stove waiting for dinner to finish cooking, while I was stopped at red lights in the car (please note that I am not condoning that ridiculously irresponsible behavior in any way). This novel is one of the most delicious, terrifying, and poignant books I’ve read in a long time. I’m pretty over-sensitive, as humans go, and I found myself crying at least once every three pages, no joke. The language is, in many places, completely arresting. For a book that describes such an ugly, horrifying dystopia, it’s filled with many moments of incredible, shocking beauty. Take this example, from the first two pages:

I know why there is no glass, in front of the watercolour picture of blue irises, and why the window only opens partly and the glass in it is shatterproof. It isn’t running away they’re afraid of. We wouldn’t get far. It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge (17-18).

Although I’m sure this list will change in the coming year, The Handmaid’s Tale has jumped right into my Top 5 Favorite Books of all Time list. If for some reason you haven’t read this book, please go out and buy it immediately. If you have, I’d love to know your thoughts below, especially regarding the “Historical Notes” section that closes the story. (Truly, there’s so much to discuss about this novel, I almost feel that we’d never run out of things to talk about or debate.)