Atwood, Margaret. “The Testaments: The Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.” Nan A. Talese, 2019. $28.95
The first cautionary note before you start reading “The Testaments;” this book is definitely not a straightforward continuation of Margaret Atwood’s groundbreaking novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
The second cautionary note: It is also not a novelization of the second and third seasons of the show that is currently on streaming video via Hulu. Once you accept these caveats, you can start to appreciate “The Testaments” on its own merits.
When “The Handmaid’s Tale” was published in 1985, it presented a bleak portrait of a country formerly known as the United States. Ravaged by environmental pollution and reeling from a drastically plummeting birth rate, the country was in a prime position to be taken over by a deeply conservative group called The Sons of Jacob. Rapidly, women’s financial accounts were frozen and their jobs were eliminated in favor of the “true” work of subservience in the new land of Gilead.
In 1985, this concept could have been seen as science fiction, particularly in terms of the technological ease in which women were identified as potential Wives, Aunts, Marthas or Handmaids. In 2019, with so much of our personal and formerly private information so easily obtainable online, it is a much more believable prospect.
And in 2019, “The Testaments” can come across as a typical dystopian plot. Set 15 years after the events of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” its success lies in the three female characters who alternate their stories in chapters and in the eventual union of these women working toward destroying Gilead. The most intriguing character is Aunt Lydia, the only continuing one from The Handmaid’s Tale. In both the Hulu show and this novel, Aunt Lydia is a fascinating mix — a seeming devotee to Gilead who somehow views herself as a strange mother figure to the Handmaids.
In “The Testaments,” we learn how Aunt Lydia, who was formerly a judge, was “converted” to the cause through a horrifying and effective device of torture, relief and choice. We also have the opportunity to discover additional aspects of Gilead through Agnes, the daughter of a Commander being prepared for marriage and her place as a Wife, and Daisy, a young girl in Canada who will wind up playing a crucial role in political tensions between both countries.
At times, especially in an escape plot involving Agnes and Daisy, “The Testaments” can read like a not-very-well-written young adult adventure. However, the alternative viewpoints of more characters contrasted with the first-person perspective of “The Handmaid’s Tale” offers a larger worldview of Gilead. How can a long-awaited sequel to a novel now deemed as a classic live up to readers’ expectations? The answer is that it may not be able to do so in that way, but “The Testaments” works well as a stand-alone novel and a warning of just how quickly a society can be changed.