If you’re a bookish type (and if you aren’t, I’m surprised but very pleased that you’ve found my blog), you’re no doubt aware that we’re only days away from the September 10th publication of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, the long-awaited sequel to her iconic The Handmaid’s Tale. The book’s publication must surely be the most hyped literary happening of the year. In July, months before its publication, Testaments was already long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker prize (judges get advance copies) and only this week it made the award’s short list. On the publication day itself, Atwood will speak at London’s National Theatre and her sold-out appearance will be live-broadcasted to over thirteen hundred cinemas from Canada to Malta. Increasing the hype is the measures Atwood’s publisher has imposed to prevent any pre-publication leaks: the Booker judges were bound by non-disclosure agreements and advance review copies (in some cases at least) were printed with a false title and author (perhaps to prevent them from falling into enemy hands? smiley face here!). In short, Testaments‘ publication is a very big deal.
I really hadn’t planned on posting anything today (have I mentioned that I have a research paper due, so very, very shortly? Oh, I did!) but as Fortuna would have it (please forgive, but I’m still on a classical kick from my last post), when I clicked on The Guardian this morning I discovered that its book section contained an exclusive advance excerpt from Testaments. I thought I’d share the wealth, so if you’re interested, click here. If, like me, you enjoy reviews, you may want to check out what critics in the Washington Post and the New York Times had to say (both have pay walls, so hopefully you haven’t used up all your clicks this month!) And, late-breaking news, I’ve just discovered that Amazon goofed, broke security and in the U.S. prematurely mailed out several hundred copies of Testaments when it wasn’t supposed to! Isn’t it all terribly exciting?
Hoopla aside, I have a substantive question to ask: how do you, dear reader, feel about Testaments’ impending publication? Were you so unimpressed by Handmaid’s that you greeted the news of a sequel with a yawn and a “why is she bothering” thought? Or did you pre-order your copy a year ago and make plans to be “sick” on September 11th to settle in and enjoy your exciting new acquisition? (I don’t know about you, dear reader, but Janakay always reads in bed when she’s sick! Janakay would have to be dying — very, very painfully so — to waste a perfectly good sick day by not reading!) Or, if you’re more digitally minded, do you plan to have your finger suspended over your kindle, waiting to download the minute the clock strikes 12:01 on September the 10th?
In the interest of encouraging group candor in responses to my little question, I’ll share my reaction first. I really wasn’t that interested in Testaments; in fact, I hadn’t planned on even reading it, at least not this year. Have I embarrassed myself? Are you so horrified you’ve relegated me to your list of bookish troglodytes, vowing never to read my blog again? I certainly hope not! I was a little puzzled myself at my lack of enthusiasm, especially given the fact that I adore Atwood’s work (I’ve read almost all of it, including some of her very good poetry) and regard her as one of the very greatest living novelists. As for Handmaid’s itself, I loved it! Aside from its narrative power, it’s one of those books that is very much bound up with my memories of a certain time and place, which increases its emotional impact for me. (Don’t we all have a few of these?) For me, Handmaid’s Tale is a cold, snowy day in early 1986 and apartment hunting in a new city with a (relatively) new Mr. Janakay, preparing for a demanding new job and a cross-country move (how can I possibly break the news to the cats? They hate to travel.). Just when I think my feet must surely be turning blue (my shoes are getting soaked), I spot one of those delightful small bookstores that doesn’t exist any more. It’s in an old brownstone with a large bay window, which has a fetching display featuring shiny, newly published copies of Atwood’s latest. I won’t say that I took my rent money, exactly, to buy it, but in those days newly published hardback books were not everyday occurrences in Janakay’s life! Nor did I regret my purchase. Atwood’s story was so gripping that I stayed up most of the night reading and couldn’t focus on much of anything else until I finished the novel a day or so later.
Given my intense reaction to Handmaid’s, why so little excitement now about its sequel? Perhaps it’s precisely because Handmaid’s Tale did have such a powerful effect on me. I found Handmaid’s so perfect and complete in itself I didn’t see any need to continue the story. Its ambiguities didn’t trouble me; in fact, I thought the mystery surrounding Offred’s unknown fate actually increased the power of her fragmentary narrative. On a less lofty level, perhaps Handmaid’s impact has simply faded over the years since I’ve read it, particularly since I haven’t watched the (so I hear) very powerful TV series. Have any of you had a similar experience of closure, either with Handmaid’s Tale or another book?
When I was writing this post, I pulled down my (very) old copy of Handmaid’s Tale to check out a few details. You can imagine my surprised delight (my heart actually started pounding) when I re-discovered the fact that I’d had my copy autographed by Atwood. I very much remembered hearing her speak (in fact, I went to a good deal of trouble to attend) but I had forgotten the autograph, as I’m almost always too lazy to stand in line for them. In this, however, as in all else, Atwood was so special I made the effort.
Maybe I’ll pre-order a copy of Testaments after all.
12 thoughts on “The Handmaid’s Tale and Its Sequel: News and Reflections”
Interestingly, I feel vaguely like you about this! I adore Atwood and have since I first read her work in the 1980s. And I read Handmaid’s and loved it and found it incredibly chilling back in the day – prescient even. But I haven’t gone back to it in decades and I didn’t watch the TV series – I don’t like my books being pinned down by anyone else’s vision of them as a rule. I was initially intrigued by the idea of a sequel but actually the hoopla surrounding it is a little offputting. And I agree also about leaving things undefined – I remember liking that about the book, and it was another reason I didn’t want to see the series. So I don’t actually know if I want to, or will, read it. But I am very jealous of your autograph – I’ve never seen Ms. Atwood in the flesh, although I *did* meet Angela Carter once and have a signed book to prove it! 😀
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Oooh Kaggsy! Angela Carter herself! Now I’m the envious one! I’ve only started looking at Carter’s work but the little I’ve seen I’ve found most intriguing; her voice is just so very distinctive. I love gothic elements in fiction (I’m U.S. southern and when I wanted gothic as a child all I had to do was look around the dinner table, especially at holidays! It gave me a life long fondness for this element in literature). I vaguely remember an essay collection about Carter’s work (The Bloody Chamber?) and thinking it would be fun to check it out.
Isn’t it funny about Handmaid’s? As you said, it was so very chilling (and, sadly, prescient); perhaps I didn’t want to sully the initial experience or, honestly, don’t want to repeat that level of intensity. Although I’ve re-read several of Atwood’s novels, I’ve never been tempted to re-read Handmaid’s. Since I hadn’t opened my copy in many years, I almost fainted when I saw Atwood’s autograph! Christmas is early this year! I may end up reading Testaments (the excerpt in the Guardian really did hook me in) but it’s the first Atwood novel in ages that I’m not rushing out to buy.
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Fun to read the post and your comments, ladies. I was eating when I almost chocked with the troglodyte comment, ha ha ha.
I obviously don’t have the same emotional attachment to Atwood you both do. To read the story of how you, Janakay, got Handsmaid and read it was very interesting, this whole post about the hoopla around the sequel was so much fun to read.
The ambiguity doesn’t bother me at all. I consider Handsmaid well rounded, it ends well. I do want to watch the TV series, it intrigues me, but I only have Netflix and it’s on a different platform. I may read Testaments, but I’m going to wait a bit to do so, maybe re-read, or read Handsmaid carefully, and then Testaments. My only read was a hurried one at the public library. and it made an impact in some parts, but it was also terribly sad to read, I don’t know. I may just read something else by her. I have the Assassin title, so maybe I just be content with that title which I think I’ll enjoy.
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Hi Silvia — as always, it’s nice you stopped by. My plan on reading Testaments is very similar to yours — wait a bit, try to re-read (or skim) Handmaid’s (I really remember only a small part of the story) and then go on to Testaments. I may have said this in a comment, rather than my post, but I’ve never wanted to re-read Handmaid’s even though I’ve re-read several of Atwood’s other novels. It was just TOO intense, some parts (as you noted) terribly so. I certainly don’t think you have to read it to enjoy Atwood’s work; I loved The Blind Assasin (if I had to limit myself to just one Atwood novel, it might be that one!). And — bonus for Silvia, as I know you enjoy sci-fi — one of the “stories-within-a-story” is a sci-fi tale!
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I rarely get sick, but when I am, I am debilitated. I can’t read or watch television. I just sleep and moan and worry I will never feel well again.
I commented on one of your earlier posts that I am also not that excited about The Testaments. I love Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale was the first book from her that I read. My story of how I came to it is not as lovely as yours. It is a non-story. I only recall it was a paperback copy. I don’t remember how I got it. I still had that very copy up till around 10 years ago when mice in the garage ate a nice chunk of it, so I chucked it. I probably read it in 1988 or 1989 and like you I read it very quickly. It blew me away. I liked the open end to it because then I can give it the ending I want.
Whether it is true or not, this sequel coming on the heels of the television series (which I have not seen) smacks of opportunism to me. Had she published The Testaments in the Obama era, I would believe more that Atwood really felt she had something further to say. I am probably being unfair. I wonder too if my lack of enthusiasm is coming from my experience with the Maddaddam trilogy. I loved the first two books but the third was a big miss for me. I found it unnecessary and that it undercut some of the previous books’ power.
I will probably read The Testaments, but I am not going to be the first person in line. I would also like to re-read The Handmaid’s Tale first too, before I try the sequel.
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I’m replying here so that Ruthiella hopefully reads this too.
Are you advancing on your paper, Janakay? I do worry about you, -smile. I want you to succeed on it, 🙂 (I trust you will).
I like the prospect of you, Ruthiella, Kaggsy, and I reading Testaments at roughly the same time. I’m very set on The Blind Assassin, and the sci-fi plus stories within stories is truly a book right up my alley, as you noticed!
I enjoyed your non story, Ruthiella, 🙂 I think you have a point with the opportunism. Not that I resent Atwood or any other good author for it. Many and most alive writers, don’t make any or much money, certainly not an amount that correlates to what they give us. And other mediocre ones who have their books made into movies, etc., cash more profit. That’s not to say I want to know also what’s great, decent, and not that worth, and as a reader, I still feel disappointed by things like what you say, a third book in a trilogy that’s not up to the previous ones standards.
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Hi Silvia: Thanks for asking about my paper! (I, too, am concerned! Well, a little). It’s advancing with glacial slowness, mostly because I want to do other things (I just read Ruthiella’s comment, and being suggestible, now want to look at Atwood’s Maddadam trilogy! Or read my “art in ancient Rome” text, or whatever!). The paper, however, will get done!
I’ll be very interested to learn the reactions of “the Testament skeptics” (among which I include myself) to Atwood’s new book. It’s too bad no one has a read scheduled for the immediate future.
Like you, I think Ruthiella’s “non-story” was pretty funny; I’ve had similar losses.
You make some good points about authors cashing in. So many good writers make very little money, even when they’re at least moderately successful (I think the NYRB or the New Yorker did a rather depressing piece on this, some years ago); when you consider how long it takes to write a book, even a large advance probably doesn’t come anywhere near covering expenses for a full-time writer. Still, no one wants to read dreck in the form of a sequel or one of those endless series that certain genres (including fantasy and sci-fi ) can be prone to produce! As I said in my response to Ruthiella, however, I think Atwood has too much integrity as a writer for this, although I’m sure all the attention influenced her decision to do a sequel. All the critical response so far has been glowing; I think there’s a real possibility she’ll even win the Booker prize next month.
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I really want Testaments to be a great title, and I want her to win the Booker prize.
Ruthiella: It was nice reading your comments and nice to learn that I’m not alone in my lack of Testaments enthusiasm. I must admit that when I first read a year or so ago that a sequel to Handmaid’s was in the works, the word “opportunism” did cross my mind. Atwood herself has said that Testaments was prompted by questions/responses from her readers and, from what I’ve picked up here and there Testaments does seem to be quite a different book from Handmaid’s. I just decided to put motive aside as Atwood has so much integrity that she’ll produce real art rather than just recycle the same material for the bucks.
Isn’t it funny (odd funny that is) how memories sometimes attach themselves to certain books or reading experiences? I only have a few such but this was one. I think it was due to a combination of reading a very emotionally intense book at a particularly intense transition period in my life: new job, new (and very different) city, cross country move, new living arrangements and dealing with two VERY angry cats! Others might have memories of where or with whom they read a particular book, or have emotions associated with some beloved old tome they’ve retained from childhood (I have one book I’ve carried with me for most of my adult life, literally held together with the grubby tape I applied when I was 12 or 13). Only a few days ago I read a great post on Balzac, which was made even better by Maximilian’s memory of the exotic locales where he acquired the two novels he was reviewing
(https://vogliodio.wordpress.com/2019/08/23/two-by-balzac/ ) Hmm, this might make a good discussion topic, particularly if it could be linked to something literary, like Proust and the madeleine (although wasn’t it actually the scent of tea, rather than the madeleine itself, that set off his sense memory? Research, research!)
Like you, I loved Atwood’s Maddadam trilogy. I liked the third novel a little better than you did, although I certainly agree that it wasn’t as powerful as the first two. A small but wonderful tie-in for me was the fact that I visited the same area in northern Australia (although long after Atwood) and went birding with the same guy who showed her “that rare bird the Red-necked Crake.” In fact, he told me about taking her birdwatching! My quote is from Atwood’s Acknowledgments section, where she thanks him for the experience. Unlike her, I missed the crake, although I did see some other wonderful things!
I still need to actually read Handmaiden. It’s got so much hype lately that I’m afraid I’ll be let down.
It IS tricky, reading something that’s received so very much hype; it inevitably colors your expectations. Also, if you’ve seen the TV series that might complicate your reaction as well. But — the book is short, Atwood is great and you can always give it a try later on, when the hype and your memory of it fades a bit!
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I haven’t seen the tv series yet cuz I wanted to read the book first (so I could then harshly judge the show lol). I just tend to not love a lot of the stuff people go wild for but I really want to like it!
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