Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Books Made Into Movies (page 1 of 8)

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before – Jenny Han

For a fluffy young-adult rom-com, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before has a spine-chilling premise. Lara Jean has written a letter to every boy she’s ever loved (five total), letters that were supposed to be for her eyes only… until one day, under mysterious circumstances, the letters are mailed to the boys in question. It’s every teen girl’s worst nightmare; even now, slightly (ahem!) past my teenage years, I shudder at the thought. But don’t let that put you off! It sets the stage for a thoroughly delightful read.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was first published back in 2014. I’d already seen the Netflix adaptation, but I figured if the book was anywhere near as charming and endearing, it’d be worth reading. Han has said her story was inspired by her own habit of writing love letters (never mailed) to the boys she had crushes on as a teenager. For Lara Jean – and presumably for her creator – the letters are cathartic, a way to “let go” and farewell the boys she has no future with (including her sister’s boyfriend – eek!).

Sure, the romance is the central plot, but equally essential to this novel is Lara Jean’s family. Her mother is, sadly, dead, but she is very close to her father and sisters. Margot is the elder, headed off for university in Scotland, and Kitty is the younger, annoying at times but wise beyond her years. Josh – the aforementioned boyfriend of Margot – is practically part of the family. He lives next door and he often joins them for dinner and family events. He is also (prepare yourself for a stomach-churn) an unintended recipient of one of Lara Jean’s letters.





What’s a girl to do? Throw everyone off the scent by plunging head-long into a fake relationship, of course! Another recipient of a letter, Peter Kravinsky, is the “cool guy” of Lara Jean’s high school. He’s also recently broken up with his own girlfriend. They mutually agree to carry on as though they’re in a relationship. Lara Jean hopes it will prove to Josh that she’s moved on (and stop Margot cottoning on to the fact that she was secretly lusting after him the whole time, plausible deniability is the name of the game!), and Peter just wants to make his ex-girlfriend and resident Mean Girl, Gen, jealous.

Will it come as any shock if I tell you that this perfect plan goes horribly awry? Of course not! Of course it does! And everyone involved gets their feelings at least a little bit hurt. Such is the nature of young-adult romances. And yet, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before – predictable and sweet as it might be – never once feels like a cliche. It’s never cloying or annoying. I mean, if you’re determined to be a real grouch, I suppose you could look down your nose at it, but boo to you!





Given the dire state of the world, and our collective desperation for a little escapism, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is the perfect read for the current moment. It’s sweet, it’s nostalgic, no one has to wear a mask or sing Happy Birthday as they wash their hands… Lara Jean’s internal monologue feels real. So. many other YA novels I’ve read sound like an adult simply parodying the way they think teenagers speak “nowadays”, which is patronising to say the least. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, however, hits the mark – a bullseye! Ah, to be young and in love…

The initial release spent 40 weeks on the New York Times Young Adult Best Seller List, and went on to be translated and published in over 30 languages. It got another boost upon the release of the Netflix adaptation in 2018 (which, I’m pleased to report, was mostly faithful to the book). There have since been two sequels, too: P.S. I Love You in 2015 (now with its own Netflix treatment, too), and Always And Forever, Lara Jean in 2016. I’m not sure I’m hooked enough to seek those out, but I wouldn’t discourage anyone from doing so. On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who needs to be reminded that life can be good and sweet.

My favourite Amazon reviews of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before:

  • “I wanted the movie.” – Kayti
  • “This was an amazing book because it was about boys.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I couldn’t put this book down. I love how it was clean and not dirty.” – Staci

Normal People – Sally Rooney

What on earth can I say about Normal People that hasn’t been said already? As I sit down to write this review, I’m chewing my lip, frantically scanning every note I took while reading it, looking for something – ANYTHING! – that sounds new or interesting. The fact is, I am (once again) probably the last person in the world to read this book. I had every intention of reading and reviewing it before the mini-series adaptation was released, but… All I can say is that I hope being perpetually late to the party is a part of the Keeping Up With The Penguins brand that you all secretly find endearing.

Normal People is millennial wunderkind Sally Rooney’s second novel, published in 2018 (her first, Conversations With Friends, was published the year prior). The story – if we can call it that – starts in 2011, with the primary characters Connell and Marianne as teenagers. They live in the same small Irish town, but that’s where the similarities between them end.

People know that Marianne lives in the white mansion with the driveway and that Connell’s mother is a cleaner, but no one knows the special relationship between these facts.

Normal People (Page 2)

It’s definitely a character-driven novel; there’s not much of a plot to summarise here, beyond saying that Normal People depicts four years of Connell and Marianne’s relationship, the ebbs and tides as they graduate high-school and attend Trinity College in Dublin. It’s basically the folie à deux of young love in novel form, but let me be clear: it’s not a romance novel. For most of the four year period, Connell and Marianne are barely friends, let alone lovers, and they never seem to actually like each other all that much.





Rooney uses this relationship as something like a case study of the millennial condition, the strange fact of coming of age where you seem to have everything and nothing simultaneously. That’s why she’s been (repeatedly!) called the “Salinger of the Snapchat generation”, though I think of what she’s doing as more akin to Hemingway’s depiction of the Lost generation after the war. Setting Marianne and Connell’s lives during the post-GFC downturn is hardly an accident; it’s clear that Rooney is doing more than simply “writing what she knows”.

Normal People is remarkably subtle, though, in the way it provokes and challenges us to think about what life is like for the kids these days. When we first meet the pair, Connell is popular, handsome, intelligent, and beloved at their high-school, while Marianne is skinny, anxious, masochistic, and on-the-outer socially. They meet only because Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s house, and initiate a sexual liaison only once Connell has firmly established that their encounters will remain a solemn secret, lest his good reputation be tarnished by association.

It took me a while to work out why this bugged me (I mean, besides the obvious – teenage boy Connell is a complete dick). When I finally put my finger on it, I had a lightbulb-going-on-above-the-head moment. As the “wealthy” one, surely Marianne should have been in the position of having the most social capital? But no, Rooney subverts that subconscious expectation, and in so doing shows us how class and status markers have shifted for this generation. (And I think we can read a lot of gender stuff into this point, too, but I haven’t got that far yet – Normal People is a book that requires a lot of mulling.)





Don’t worry: Normal People isn’t the tired old girl-lets-herself-get-mistreated-by-an-arsehole-forever story – Rooney subverts that expectation, too. At university, Marianne blossoms while Connell flounders, and the power dynamics of their relationship shift accordingly. BUT, hold onto your hats, this isn’t your standard best-revenge-is-living-well resolution, either! Rooney does it again! (Should we make this a Normal People drinking game?) Neither of them ever really gets it together, and their issues are never completely resolved.

In fact, over the course of the novel, it really seems that Marianne and Connell bring out the worst in each other. They are, on the face of it, quite unlikeable… but also strangely sympathetic? There’s something magnetic about their relationship that draws out the voyeur in us all. You just can’t help but keep watching on, and hoping they sort their shit out. I think that strange push-pull is attributable to Rooney’s incredible writing; it’s sparse but intimate, and her insights are more penetrating than a rectal exam. My only real complaint is she doesn’t use punctuation marks to indicate speech. (Seriously, why is this a thing? Why? Just… why? I get it, it was all Cool and Arty and Literary for a minute there, but that moment is OVER and this is a hill I am willing to die on. Hate it!)

Anyhoo! Normal People was long-listed for the 2018 Booker Prize (how it didn’t progress any further is beyond me), and it won just about every Book Of The Year award on offer. It was ranked 25th on the Guardian’s 100 Best Books Of The 21st Century (seems premature, but okay) and they called it a “future classic”.

Even though Normal People is complex and intensely felt, it’s a quick read – I powered through it (wondering the whole damn time why I’d waited so damn long). It’s anxious and intimate and passionate and intriguing, just as you’d expect from every other rave review. Actually, it reminded me a lot of the shamefully-underrated 2001 Kirsten Dunst film Crazy/Beautiful, if that’s not too niche a point-of-reference for you. So, what do you reckon? Should I go ahead and watch the Normal People mini-series adaptation? Tell me in the comments…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Normal People:

  • “This book is the literary equivalent of jumping up and down on Lego in your bare feet for 5 hours.” – Keith D. Stoddart
  • “Got half way through, was suddenly and overwhelmingly overcome with boredom. It chugs on and on, the characters are dull and irritating. The cover art is good.” – J. Skeet
  • “This book starts off sad and never improves.” – Grant Gibbons
  • “I think the idea behind this novel had potential, but I feel like it was executed very poorly. It was like listening to a sad emo kid eat a white bread sandwich.” – Victoria

Under The Dome – Stephen King

Here’s another book review that’s been in the works for far too long. Back in the days when Keeping Up With The Penguins was still a seed of an idea, I was talking over my to-read list with a friend at a bar. As the night wore on, and the drinks went down, I pulled out my phone and created a new list – the next to-read list – and promised my friend that Under The Dome would be the first book on it. It was her personal favourite, and I swore to her that I’d review it just as soon as I was done with the original 109 books on my list. Well, I’m a couple months late and a dollar short, but I’m finally making good on that promise!

Really, the only reason that I put off reading Under The Dome is that I’m a big chicken. All I knew about Stephen King books is that they’re scary. Also, they’re (usually) huge – this one comes in at a whopping 880 pages. But, as with all fears, it turned out mine were (mostly) unfounded. Sure, it took a little longer to read than your standard 250-page novel, and there were a few spooky elements, but nothing that kept me up at night. So, that’s my first hot tip about Under The Dome: don’t be chicken!

The story starts on 21 October, when a small (fictional) town in Maine is completely cut off from the rest of the world by a large invisible dome that appears seemingly out of nowhere. A plane crashes right into it, killing two pilots (and one unfortunate woodchuck). The dome is unyielding, and pretty much impenetrable – some sound, light, and radio waves can travel through, but nothing with corporeal form (so no one in, no one out). So, as you can imagine, it throws everyone – under the dome, and outside of it – into a bit of a tizz.

As with any crisis situation, there are some who stand to benefit from (among other things) the panic that ensues, and an unlikely hero is called up to save the day. “Captain Barbie”, an ex-military man who was attempting to hitchhike his way out of the town on Dome Day, is charged with figuring out what the fuck is going on (the military is called in straight away, naturally, because America). Luckily, he’s got the keen-eyed flinty-cored local newspaper reporter, Julia Shumway, on his side.



Under The Dome is big in scope. I’m talking huge. I’m talking epic. At first, I couldn’t really see what the big deal was going to be; the map of the town in the front of the book included a book store, and the character list included “Dogs of Note”, so I figured I’d get by just fine in that situation, what could the problem possibly be? But then I was introduced to the town councilman, James “Big Jim” Rennie, who sees the dome as one big opportunity to make a power play that will allow him to take over the whole town. He carefully orchestrates and encourages unease among the townsfolk, using that as a springboard to expand the powers of the police force and silence any troublemakers. The dome basically throws small-town politics into a pot of water, and sets it to boil.

Now, your standard good-guy-Barbie-versus-bad-guy-Jim story would wear out real quick over the course of a book this size; they’re the main contenders in the conflict, sure, but there’s all kinds of other battles and romances and whatnot going on all around them, and King gives each their due. Under The Dome has a huge cast, and pretty much everyone’s point-of-view gets a look in at least once or twice.

The story isn’t exactly a laugh riot (in case you couldn’t tell), but some of the small-town slang and dark humour throughout made me literally laugh out loud. It was good of King to occasionally break the tension for us – believe me, there’s plenty of it. Oppressive religious mores, corrupt town council, dwindling supplies, toxic masculinity run rampant, widespread substance abuse problems, a kid with migraines and a penchant for killing women who annoy him… By putting a small town under a dome, sticking all the residents in a Lord Of The Flies-type scenario, King really lets us zoom in on the fallacy of the American Dream. In fact, King is quoted as saying that he took a lot of the same issues that he addressed in another of his books, The Stand, and used them in Under The Dome but dealt with them in a more allegorical way, taking big-world problems and putting them on a much smaller scale so we could look at them differently. After all, Anywhere, USA has a lot of dirty secrets.



As for the scary bits: well, Under The Dome isn’t horror, but holy heck, some parts are horrifying. Not just psychologically, either – I’m talking visceral, physical violence. It’s not quite supernatural or science-fictional, either. There are some spooky/other-worldly elements, but they’re not the focus or the key driver of the book. I’d shelve this one as more of a suspense thriller, a cautionary tale, with some genre-bending towards the end.

I can see why they made Under The Dome into a TV series (2013-2015); it’s got that strong small-town big-cast vibe that would be perfect for fans of Lost, or any other broad-woven light-sci-fi stories. The characters were quite well fleshed-out and three-dimensional for the most part, which was surprising given how many of them there are (and how many die). The sheer number of them, in the book version at least, allows King to tantalise the reader and reveal information really slowly, BUT the constant changes in perspective make the story FEEL pacy and compelling, regardless.

It was actually really refreshing to read a contemporary epic – not a multi-generational saga set across a century, but an event playing out over just days (a fortnight, tops) with close and intimate attention paid to every detail. Yes, it makes for a hella-long book, but it’s probably as short as King could have possibly made it without sacrificing the multiplicity of perspectives, and without those, the story would have needed a lot of long, boring monologue-y exposition from one or two key characters, anyway. No, thank you, please! Not for a story as complex as this one! I’d be happy to call Under The Dome a long book worth your time, and I must concede my friend was right in drunkenly insisting I read it (apologies, again, for taking so long to finally make good on my word – I’ll do better next time, I swear!).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Under The Dome:

  • “Never finished, conned a friend into taking it off my hands.” – Michael A. Swaney
  • “The story is entertaining though much of this book and the voice performance is really great (baaaarbie), but Stephen Kings loony left bias just pops it’s ugly head up way too often. It’s distracting and takes a lot away from the story. Really. Every white male christian is an evil crack addicted psychopath Nazi rapist and every journalist is like a cherub from heaven? Come on dude. I know this is fiction, but these old cliches are not only unbelievable they are boooooooring. If I knew it would have been like this I would not have purchased this audio book.” – Dorian
  • “I know this is blasphemy but I was disappointed with this effort of Stephen King. The baddies are bad. The goodies are good. Smut and flying body parts couldn’t hid a boring read. Sorry, there it is.” – Bod Parr
  • “Good until the ending as usual. 2 1/2 stars.” – L. M.

Call Me By Your Name – Andre Aciman

Ah, young love: so smouldering, so passionate, so intensely felt. That’s the subject of Andre Aciman’s 2007 novel, Call Me By Your Name. It’s his first book of fiction, though he’s published other non-fiction books and teaches literature, so I’m not sure we could technically call it a “debut”. It tells the story of a blooming romance between 17-year-old Elio Perlman, and 24-year-old visiting scholar Oliver, who comes to the summer home of Elio’s parents in Italy, 1983. This book has become a pillar of the contemporary queer literature canon.

The story is told in retrospect, with grown-up Elio recalling the events of that fateful summer. He always resented his parents’ tradition of taking a doctorate student into their home for six weeks each year, forcing him to vacate his bedroom (that sacred space of a teenage boy) to make room for their guest. That all changed when Oliver, carefree and detached and beautiful, arrived. Without quite understanding why, his burgeoning bisexuality still a mystery even to him, Elio appoints himself to be Oliver’s tour guide, and their attraction (mutual, or not? who knows?) simmers.

Crikey, it’s intense – right from the very first page. Aciman doesn’t ease the reader in at all. Elio’s crush is all-consuming, overwhelming, obsessive and single-minded in an almost-scary way. I felt suffocated by Elio’s passion, trapped underneath the weight of it. Of course, that’s exactly how first love feels, so I think Aciman might have been Doing A Thing(TM) in mirroring that sensation for the reader, but still… maybe steer clear of this one if you’re narratively claustrophobic 😉

There’s a lot of push-pull in Elio and Oliver’s relationship. Elio rejects Oliver’s first overture, then Oliver pushes him away when he tries to get amorous. I know, I know, they were young and it was the ’80s, but sheesh – so much of the heartache could’ve been avoided with some open and honest communication! Elio pulls a very typical teenage boy stunt – he starts an affair with a local girl, Marzia (“see how much I don’t care if you reject me? I’ve got someone else!”), then slips a note under Oliver’s door being all “come meet me”. Unfortunately, it works, and they FINALLY do roots.





Despite the fact that it’s a coming-of-age story, Call Me By Your Name is hardly a young adult book. For one, it’s quite erotic, albeit in a highly literary way. All of the sexual encounters (including one truly smutty incident with a peach) are depicted in detail, but not to titillate – it feels more like Aciman is simply demonstrating the depth and desperation of Elio and Oliver’s desire.

Before he heads home to America, Oliver decides to take a little trip to Rome (as you do), and Elio accompanies him – a lover’s getaway. It’s bittersweet, though, because it’s over almost before it began. By the time Elio returns to his parents’ home, alone, all traces of Oliver have been removed. And, just to compound both the bitterness and the sweetness, Elio’s father intimates that he understands the true nature of his “friendship” with Oliver, and that he approves. I’m so grateful to Aciman for sparing us the parents-kick-him-out-after-coming-out trope!

Of course, that’s not quite the end of the story. A few months later, at Christmas, Oliver visits again – with big news. He’s getting married, to a woman. Obviously, that pisses Elio (still young and in the throes of first love) right off. They fall out of touch, almost completely, for over a decade.





We fast-forward fifteen years, with Elio (relatively) grown up but still unable to let go of that summer romance he had as a teenager. He decides to visit Oliver in the U.S., where he’s now a professor at a prestigious university. You’d think – both being older and uglier and better able to handle themselves – they’d finally sort their shit out, but nope! Oliver admits he’s been online-stalking Elio for years, following his career. Elio tells Oliver there’s no way in hell he wants to meet Oliver’s wife and children, because he’s seething with jealousy and he still has a massive hard-on. They entertain themselves with the could’ve-would’ve-should’ves for a while, then go their separate ways.

Finally, five years after that – so that’s twenty years after their first meeting, and one year before the narrator’s present – Oliver returns to visit Elio in Italy. Elio, in a fit of romantic madness, says that if Oliver remembers and still desires everything between them, he should once more “look me in the face, hold my gaze, and call me by your name”. The ending is highly frustrating in its ambiguity – do they? don’t they? what happens next? – so Aciman released a sequel last year, Find Me, to fill in the blanks.

Call Me By Your Name isn’t about Oliver – it’s a strange thing to say, I know, given that Oliver consumes Elio’s every waking (and even sleeping) thought. It might be unromantic of me to even suggest this, but I feel like “Oliver” could’ve been literally anyone who crossed Elio’s path at that point in his life. It just so happened to be him onto whom Elio projected everything: his hopes, his confusion, his sexuality, his history, and his desires. In that view, it’s a fascinating character study of a young queer man coming-of-age through a formative love affair, and deftly avoids all of the tragic tropes with which the canon is littered.

And, of course, Call Me By Your Name was adapted to a critically-acclaimed film, directed by Luca Guadagnino in 2017. It won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, even. I have no idea how they managed to translate such an interior, obsessive novel to the screen, but hats off to them! I’m not sure I’ll be seeking out the film, but I do highly recommend this book if you need something warm to savour with a glass of red wine (or three) on some freezing winter night…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Call Me By Your Name:

  • “Too little for too long” – Amazon Customer
  • “I recomend” – Sandro Guia Los Angeles
  • “This is a foriegn language book trying to return.
    Do not speak This language.” – David Hancock
  • “The writing was beautiful but I wish I hadn’t read it. I didn’t like it AND it broke my heart.” – KatMarie
  • “I’m no soft porn expert, but that’s how this book struck me. On the whole, it was OK but not one I’d recommend to a lot of people.” – Marti Johnson

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

All my life, whenever The Handmaid’s Tale came up in conversation with someone I know well, they were always shocked to learn I hadn’t read it already. I’d absorbed enough about it through popular culture that I had a vague idea of what it was about, of course, but no more than that – somehow, I remained miraculously spoiler-free. I hadn’t even watched the HBO series! So, I sat down to this one with a clean slate, and an open mind.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, was first published in 1985. It’s set in a near-future New England (an eerie echo of The Scarlet Letter, perhaps?), re-named Gilead, where a new theological totalitarian regime has overthrown the U.S. government as we would know it in the “real” world (yes, yes, I know, the “real” world now resembles Gilead more than it ever has before, but that point has been made so often that it just feels hacky to even bring it up).

The story follows Offred, a “handmaid” in the house of Fred (get it?), the master whom she is bound to serve in this religious patriarchal hellscape. Basically, widespread infertility has rocked society so hard that they’ve rounded up all the fertile women and started using them as breeders in the households of wealthy elites. Offred is lucky enough to have functioning lady bits, so off she’s carted to Fred’s house, and his wife has to sit around and watch as Fred tries to stick one in her. Fun times!

And where the heck does Atwood even come up with twisted shit like this? The “real” world, of course (turns out I couldn’t help myself, sorry). She drew a lot from the Puritans (interesting-but-only-semi-related-fun-fact: Mary Webster, one of Atwood’s ancestors, was accused of witchcraft in Puritan New England, but survived her hanging), and other regimes in which women are subjugated on “religious” grounds. Basically, Atwood is challenging us to look at what would happen if casually misogynistic attitudes (prevalent in the ’80s, at the time of writing, and sadly still today) were taken to their logical extremes. Atwood has famously said that nothing in her speculative fictional world of Gilead hasn’t already happened at some point in human history. So, that’s a cheery thought!





Of course, the system extends far beyond a simple fertile/non-fertile binary: there’s a (conveniently colour-coded) hierarchy to assign women their status and roles. The Handmaids (red) are in charge of baby-making, the Aunts (brown) are in charge of “educating”, the Marthas (green) are domestic servants, the Wives (blue) are married to the men in charge and pretty much just swan around trying to hide their drinking problems and brunching, and the Econowives (stripes of every colour) are expected to do the lot for lower-status husbands. The hierarchy for men is less clear, but it seems to boil down to Commanders (like Fred) who run things, and their soldiers/lackeys. The only ones free from expectation (as much as one can in a totalitarian regime) are the Unwomen and the Jezebels, who have committed “crimes against their gender” so egregious that they’re not accepted in polite society. Good on ’em!

The history and structure of Gilead is relayed entirely from Offred’s perspective, as well as her own personal story – thus, The Handmaid’s Tale (and things from here on are going to get spoilery, so exit your browser now or forever hold your peace). She points out that dividing women in this way, so visibly and without recourse, stops them from empathising with each other (which, in turn, prevents them from banding together in resistance). Still, her exposition, her explanation of how all of this came to be, is gradual – sometimes frustratingly so. I get that Atwood didn’t want to overwhelm the reader with all the details of her world at once, but in some ways, I kind of wanted her to! Just give me the lay of the land and let’s get on with things! (And that’s why jumpy timelines and I don’t normally get along…)

And jumpy it is: in between drip-feeding us fascinating insights into how Gilead works, Offred tells us the story of both her past and her present. In her past, as the Gilead takeover was happening, she smelled blood in the water and tried to flee to Canada with her husband and child (they’d been adulterous, had a kid out of wedlock, Offred wanted to be able to do stuff like make her own money and read books – all the shit theological totalitarians hate). Ultimately, she was caught and separated from her family. Serving as a Handmaid was her punishment (or “reward”, depending how you look at it – she was “saved” by her functioning ovaries from being exiled to “the colonies”).





In Offred’s present, her life revolves around doing the daily grocery shop (because stretching one’s legs is good for the womb, somehow), and The Ceremony every time she ovulates (i.e., a rape ritual, intended to impregnate her). That is, until her Commander goes off script, and asks to start seeing her on the side. They’re not supposed to have any interaction outside of The Ceremony (she’s not a concubine, after all, she’s a Handmaid), but he’s all keen to get together and play Scrabble, and he gives her lotion and booze as bribes to keep her quiet about his indiscretions. Offred later learns that he tried a similar carry-on with his former Handmaid, and she killed herself when his wife found out.

But Fred’s wife is none the wiser, for the moment, and even decides she likes Offred enough to make her own illicit overtures: she suggests that Offred try to get their driver, Nick, to impregnate her (seeing as Fred’s clearly struggling to get the job done). Offred and Nick develop a relationship, getting it on every chance they get, and eventually start sharing secrets.

Atwood keeps on world-building, right up until the final chapters – I know I complained about that just a minute ago, but I’ve got to give it to her, the writing craft is absolutely superb. It turns out, there is a resistance, and Nick might be able to get Offred out, smuggle her to safety. But can she trust him? He could be a spy – an Eye, as they’re called in Gilead – and it could all be an elaborate ruse to catch Offred out. In the end, Nick shows up with a car full of Eyes, and tells her to let them “arrest” her because they’re actually undercover members of the resistance. She figures she doesn’t have much choice, she’s bundled into the car, and away she goes. Her fate, in the reader’s mind, was left completely uncertain (until the sequel was released last year, anyway).





The real master-stroke, the knock-out punch, is the epilogue that reveals the “truth” of the story’s frame. It turns out Offred’s narrative was recorded onto a series of cassette tapes, and the transcript is being presented at a conference for academics that study “the Gilead period” of history. Atwood implies that Gilead collapsed, at some point, and a more equal society then emerged, with restored rights for women and freedom of religion. The academics, like the reader, have no idea what happened to Offred in the end, and these tapes are one of the few records (or “testaments”, eh?) they have on what went on in those dark days.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a vital book – even if the jumpy timeline(s) and drip-feed world-building annoyed me, I absolutely acknowledge its brilliance and ongoing relevance, on par with Nineteen Eighty-Four. It won the Arthur C Clarke Award, the Commonwealth Literature Prize, and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the year of its release. Plus, it’s been challenged and banned too many times to count (always a good sign!), because it’s too sexually explicit, it has “adult themes”, it presents a negative view of religion, yadda yadda yadda…

That’s not to say it’s beyond reproach, of course (literature, no matter how good, never is). One particularly interesting critique I read, from Ana Cottle, positioned The Handmaid’s Tale as a manifestation of white feminism. Not only did Atwood barely acknowledge the absence of women of colour in her story (thankfully rectified somewhat by their inclusion in the HBO adaptation), she also borrowed heavily from the lived experience of oppressed women of colour (Cottle specifically mentioned African-American women, but I think her critique is applicable more broadly) and slapped it on women of relative privilege. To loosely paraphrase, the reason we find The Handmaid’s Tale so confronting is that the abuses perpetrated against women of colour are suddenly perpetrated against white women, and that blows our tiny minds. It would probably take a PhD thesis to fully explore this idea and do it justice, but I still thought it worth mentioning.

In the end, I totally understood why all my friends were so shocked I’d never read The Handmaid’s Tale. It was so far up my alley, I almost laughed when I finished it. I’m glad to have read it now, and hope to do so again – it seems like the kind of book that would benefit from many re-reads, spaced out over time. As the world changes, and the reader changes, the story it tells will change too, I’m sure.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Handmaid’s Tale:

  • “Handmade tales. Love this book.” – Annmarie Iamonica
  • “I didn’t enjoy the moral content.” – j3a3r
  • “This book is dark and twisted what are they thinking to come that far for womens rights then give up” – Michael Robertson
  • “Boring, weird and just more weird and boring !!!!!” – Amy R.


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