Sunday 6 December 2020

Book club highlights on a chilly December morning...

We don’t have much snow right now but it’s quite chilly outside today.  Good thing I have a steaming cup of chai and a slice of freshly baked Date Bread to keep me warm as I write about our recent book club discussion.

For my Volunteer Book Club, I normally choose a book that is either seasonal or something that ends in December (for example, A Year on Provence by Peter Mayle) for our last meeting of the year.  But for yesterday’s meeting, I chose a decidedly un-seasonal novel, The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.  I started the meeting by apologizing to everyone and wondering aloud what I could have been thinking when I added this to our list for December.  But they were very kind and said that it was OK… thankfully they all enjoyed the book!  Here is what I wrote when I read it for the first time last year: 

“The Testaments is the long-awaited sequel to Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel that asks the question, “What would happen if the world were ruled by (certain) men?”  I had to qualify that, as I’m sure there are some men out there who would not force all women into servitude, even if it were allowed and strongly encouraged.  But let’s face it, it’s been proven time and again that people who are given supreme power over others will inevitably abuse it.  Everyone knows what society is like in Gilead, whether from reading the book or watching the series, so I won’t spend any more time on that.  Instead I will focus on this new book, a novel that I think was brilliant in its own way.  The Testaments takes us back to Gilead fifteen years after the closing of The Handmaid’s Tale, and offers a look at how the society has developed and changed.  It is told from three different points of view, the testaments of Aunt Lydia, Agnes Jemima and Daisy.  We know Aunt Lydia from the previous novel, but fifteen years later, she is the most powerful woman in Gilead, whispering straight into the ear of Commander Judd.  Agnes Jemima is a precious flower, a girl who, at thirteen, is destined to become the new wife of a powerful, and much older, man.  And Daisy, at sixteen, is a sassy teen living in Toronto who will play a pivotal role in the Mayday operation to bring Gilead down.  I don’t want to give anything else away because the mystery surrounding these three characters and the ways their stories become intertwined is what makes this book a real page-turner.  I hate to compare novels, but while The Handmaid’s Tale was introspective and character-driven, The Testaments is more plot-driven.  Both showcase Atwood’s amazing use of language and her supreme skill at subverting it to create an eerily chilling atmosphere that is shockingly believable.  But in The Testaments, Atwood manages to also offer readers a Gileadean political espionage thriller that kept me staying up late and getting up early to read “just a few more pages”.  My only complaint, if you can even call it that, is with the timing of the stories, but I think I need to read it again before I make any comments, as it was probably just me rushing through it that left me feeling as though it didn’t flow as well as it could have.  Against my better judgement, I read the reviews and they were not great.  One reviewer said “...if The Handmaid’s Tale was Atwood’s mistresspiece, The Testaments is a misstep.  The Handmaid’s Tale ended on a note of interrogation:  ‘Are there any questions?’  Those questions were better left unanswered”  I have to disagree with all of this.  In my opinion, she probably never wanted to write a sequel; it’s been 35 years since The Handmaid’s Tale was published, so if she really wanted to write a sequel, I’m sure she would have done so before now.  With the popularity of the series, it is likely that she felt extreme pressure to write this and answer the very questions she probably intentionally left for readers to ponder.  Like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments ends with notes from a Symposium on Gileadean Studies, in which she writes:  “It is gratifying to see such a large turnout.  Who would have thought that Gilead Studies - neglected for so many decades - would have gained so greatly in popularity?  Those of us who have laboured in the dim and obscure corners of academe for so long are not used to the bewildering glare of the limelight” (p 408).  I think this is a direct reference to the sudden and immense popularity of her earlier work.  She is a brilliant writer who can get away with weaving these types of jibes and comments into her narrative and have it flow perfectly - or jarringly - for the reader.  The most memorable part of this book for me is when Aunt Lydia, describing how she became an Aunt, talks about her time in the Thank Tank, not so much what happened to her there, but the process leading up to and following her time there, as well as the phrase, “Thank Tank”.  Unlike the reviewer quoted above, I loved this book.  As with a film adaptation of a favourite novel, the reader (or watcher) has to realize that this is a separate entity from the original and judge it on its own merit.  I highly recommend this book, even if you haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale,  but you would at least have to have watched the series or be familiar with the setting.”

I still agree with these comments, even after a second reading, but I had better luck figuring out the timing of the three testaments, and noticed a comment in the “Symposium” notes at the end that explained it, something I guess I missed the first time around.  I am so thankful that my book club ladies enjoyed this much more than last month’s selection.  The first thing everyone said was that, after reading it, they had more respect for Atwood, something they grudgingly admitted.  I don’t really understand that, since I have always appreciated her writing, even though I don’t love everything she’s written, so perhaps this selection has added a few more readers to her already-huge following.  We discussed Atwood’s wit and “wicked humour”, the power of women when they work together, and the foolishness of men who think they are invincible.  One member commented on Aunt Lydia's cunning and determination to plot and plan every action for fifteen years to achieve her ultimate goal of exposing Gilead for what it really was. We talked about the timeliness of this story, as well as The Handmaid’s Tale, and discussed how, when she first published it in the mid-1980s, it seemed impossible, but now both books are very nearly reflections of our reality.  We discussed how the restrictions in Gilead are similar to our COVID restrictions, such as no contact, the shunning of people who don’t follow the rules, and how masks are similar to the wings the handmaids wear, among other things.  We talked about clothing, and some of my ladies remember not being allowed to wear pants to school except on gym days, as well as outdated dress codes in the workplace. They also had some difficulty following the timelines, but not enough to diminish the enjoyment of the reading experience.  I asked if they thought the voices of twenty-two-year-old Agnes Jemima and sixteen-year-old Daisy sounded convincingly youthful.  Atwood is, after all, in her early 80s - we agreed that all of the characters seemed credible.  One member who listened to this as an audiobook said that Ann Dowd, the actress who played Aunt Lydia in the series, was the narrator, which added to the listening experience. The word "brilliant" cropped up in our conversation quite frequently. All in all, it turned out to be a great book selection and a great discussion to end this most unusual year, and we can only hope, as in the last chapters of The Testaments, for better days ahead.

That’s all for today.  I have lots of things to do and I want to get started.  Have a wonderful day!

Bye for now…

PS For next year's December meeting, I chose Sophie Kinsella's Christmas Shopaholic!

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