Ever since I read your predecessor, The Handmaid’s Tale, in high school I’ve wondered about the fate of Gilead and the many handmaids that are forced to live within its bounds. The the television series was made a few years ago I was glad that The Handmaid’s Tale was gaining wider recognition and popularity, especially because it contains such an important message about womanhood and autonomy. This first novel seemed complete to some degree, but there were still so many questions left unanswered.
Yet I must admit that when I heard that there was going to be a sequel–that you were going to soon exist–I was… skeptical. Were you just being scrapped together to capitalize on the growing popularity of The Handmaids Tale? Did your predecessor really need a sequel? What if you were *gasp* disappointing? It is therefore with a rather hesitant but intrigued heart that I asked for you for Christmas, and proceeded to read you immediately.
And within a few pages of beginning to read you, I knew that my worries had been for naught.
You build on the unsettling story of Gilead introduced in The Handmaid’s Tale in so many eye-opening ways. Your three different perspectives brought a whole new level of depth to Gilead that The Handmaid’s Tale lacked. My favorite perspective was Aunt Lydia’s because you really get to see just how twisted and corrupted this society is, from the way they suppress women to the drama going on at the higher levels of Commanders. It was fascinating to learn more about this character that seemed so cruel and heartless in The Handmaid’s Tale. This change in characterization makes you realize just how important and influential perspective is in understanding someone. Moreover, you expose the sexual assault and oppression of women in this society and how it can be covered up by perpetrators taking advantage of unbalanced power dynamics. And, most importantly, you show how people can rise up to change the systems that are oppressing them.
I also loved your emphasis on reading and writing, both in terms of granting people power as well as a means of recording memory. As someone who has regularly kept a journal for years, I really connected with these characters’ desire to record their lives for future readers, even if that future reader never actually arrives. There’s something about the act of recording a life in writing that feels empowering and cathartic, as though putting your thoughts and actions down on paper sets them in stone. Moreover, my absolute favorite scene is when Agnes reads the Bible on her own for the first time and realizes that the interpretation of God that she’s been fed her whole life has been distorted by Gilead. Ariel Bissett talks a lot about this scene in her interview with Margaret Atwood, which I’ll link below. It’s so striking how powerful the ability to read can become when it is a limited and controlled skill in society.
Now, although I thought you were fantastic, there is one thing I would change about you: your ending. I don’t have any qualms with the way you ended, necessarily; rather, I think the pacing could have been slowed down a bit because all the events in the last tenth of you felt quite rushed. It all felt very abrupt, as though it were an afterthought. The little chapter at the very end from post-Gilead scholars did clear some things up, but much of it still felt murky. I think you could have gotten away with less up front and more in the back end. However, this is not a major gripe and I still think you’re a brilliant novel.
All in all, I apologize for underestimating you, The Testaments. I was wrong about you. You needed to be written, as much as The Handmaid’s Tale and every other brilliant story deserves to be written. The unsettling, eye-opening, thought-provoking story of Gilead is made more powerful because of you.
I hope we can mend ties after this little disagreement.