‘The Testaments’ (The Handmaid’s Tale #2) by Margaret Atwood – Book Review

Blurb from Goodreads

In this sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, author Margaret Atwood answers the questions that have tantalised readers for decades.

When the van door slammed on Offred’s future at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, readers had no way of telling what lay ahead for her–freedom, prison or death.

With The Testaments, the wait is over.

Margaret Atwood’s sequel picks up the story more than fifteen years after Offred stepped into the unknown, with the explosive testaments of three female narrators from Gilead.

“Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.” –Margaret Atwood

My Review

I freely admit I’m not exactly a Margaret Atwood fan and when I decided to read this sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale I doubted I would much enjoy it as I found The Handmaid’s Tale to be less than well executed; marvellous premise though. 

And well, sadly I was right about The Testaments. 

While the story was incredibly engaging and easy to read ultimately I failed to see the point of this sequel. To me it detracts greatly from the originality and chilling nature of the original book. 

The Testaments feels disposable. 

It feels uninspired. 

It feels unnecessary and it sure as heck does not feel like a book worthy of wining The Booker Prize. 

This is a book lacking in gravitas which is something The Handmaid’s Tale had in spades. The Handmaid’s Tale was chilling; it was challenging and it was immensely thought provoking; I could easily see the merits of that read even though ultimately I did not much care for it. 

The style of The Testaments feels very much like connect-the-dots style writing. It’s incredibly prosaic. There is very little beauty or wit in the prose, and the narrative choices made by Atwood are nothing but terribly cheesy with incredibly obviously signposted plot *developments*. 

The book utterly lacks freshness. It feels like it has borrowed imagery and stylistic elements from the TV series rather than truly feeling connected to the original book. 

This is popcorn fiction and not a carefully crafted nor thought provoking literary read.

The book follows the perspective of three characters and is laid out as a transcription of their testaments of their interaction with all things Gilead. 

  • Elderly Aunt Lydia in Gilead.
  • Teenage Agnes also in Gilead.
  • And teenage Jade in Canada. 

The teenage characters felt very interchangeable. There was very little written that gave them a strong voice in the narrative and both characters just seemed painfully underdeveloped and written in an incredibly disappointing fashion; they were ultimately teenage stereotypes rather than characters with depth and a powerful presence. They simply did not have the solemnity of voice of Aunt Lydia and therefore felt quite wishy-washy. 

At least Aunt Lydia provided the book with some complexity of character as she was rather interestingly incredibly pious and zealous at times but also had a darker and more vindictive underbelly.

As for the political and climatic goings on in Gilead; the inequality, prosecutions, physical abuse, sexual abuse, murderous intent, violence, criminality etc… 

Women = good, men = bad… *yawn yawn yawn

It was just so heavy handed which is I suppose very typical Atwood. I always have this complaint with her writing; to me she spoon feeds her reader and leaves almost nothing up to reader interpretation. 

Here there was no delicious ambiguity with regards to the commanders in charge or not even enough light and shade when creating the relationships between all the senior aunts. The unease between Aunt Lydia and Aunt Vidala was written in such a tacky, gossipy and almost salacious manner that it just felt incredibly cheap and inauthentic. 

I missed subtlety. 

I missed morally ambiguous. 

I missed the greyness that comes with war essentially. 

And as for the allegedly chilling Commander Judd? Well he felt altogether too akin to a pantomime villain for my taste. 

The whole book felt forced to me. It felt like a dozen other feminist inspired reads and as if it was written to almost cash in on the me too era. I know that sounds incredibly cynical of me to say but this book just feels too calculated to me. As if Atwood went ‘Oi! There are all these other Handmaid’s Tale knock off books going around at the minute and I need to cash in on the action because mine is the original!’ And I don’t for a second blame her. I can very much understand how since the TV series she has thought a lot more about Gilead and would wish to return to it with her writing. But this book just doesn’t feel like it happened organically to me. 

I think what also irked me is that this book is far too positive…. 

I know… 

I hear myself!!! 

But what I enjoyed about The Handmaid’s Tale is that it was a warning, a call to arms and more importantly it had a fantastically ambiguous open ending. Having this sequel negates some of that original message. It feels like a book that is holding the reader’s hand too much. Telling us it’ll all be okay in the end… This book was just too neat and tidy. It gave too conclusive an ending to The Handmaid’s Tale that was entirely unnecessary. 

The climax of The Testaments had me rolling my eyes so much. It read like a blockbuster style thriller with a predictable run of events culminating in hilarious *conveniences*. This was not the ending that the powerful Gilead deserved. 

What it is is a book for the more casual reader and that isn’t meant to disparage this novel or indeed Atwood. Instead I look to and question the 2019 Booker Prize judging panel.

When I read a Booker Prize winner I expect a book with layers. A book that can be interpreted in multiple ways, a nuanced story. I expect a book with a certain style of prose that is either gloriously rich and leads a reader to get lost in it or perhaps is combatively spartan and challenges the reader to find the story hidden between the lines.

I expect a book that is smart, intelligent; a book that maybe subverts traditional narrative styles. Call me pretentious all you want but there is a difference between literary and popular fiction, and I feel that The Testaments is just too run of the mill to be considered literary and therefore is a winner that pandered to the masses rather than to fans of literary fiction.

I haven’t yet read all the Longlist for this year’s Booker, just Lanny and Ducks, Newburyport, and both of those I feel would have made much more sense as winners as they each had such interesting narrative styles.

I know that people can say I read this book with a bias because I’m not an Atwood fan and yes, to some extent that is true. This book really had to work to make me appreciate it… 

But overall for me it was a bit of a damp squib. And believe me, I tried to be as impartial as I could. I did find myself being quite intrigued by the story during the early parts of the novel. And I found it particularly easy to get hooked by because I was incredibly curious to see how it would all end… 

However as the book went on, I lost that eager spark I had and found myself reading just to get through it. 

Will I read more Atwood again? 

Who knows! 

I know I will always read hyped award winners and popular authors because I like to see for myself what the hype was all about. What I will say in this book’s favour is that at least it’s gotten a lot of people talking about literature. I’ve heard many more radio discussions etc about women’s fiction in particular purely because of this book. And that to me is a good thing. I like that authors such as Atwood have paved the way for other female voices to be heard. Though I am not a fan of her writing style I am an admirer of all she has done for feminism and for that I give her great credit.  

It’s still just a two star read though…

But I’ll leave you with the one passage from the book that caught my eye enough for me to want to quote it. If only more of the read had been as emotive as these few lines:

“My larger fear: that all my efforts will prove futile, and Gilead will last for a thousand years.

Most of the time, that is what it feels like here, far away from the war, in the still of the tornado.

So peaceful, the streets; so tranquil, so orderly; yet underneath the deceptively placid surfaces, a tremor, like that near a high-voltage power line.

We’re stretched thin, all of us; we vibrate, we quiver, we’re always on the alert.

Reign of terror, they used to say, but terror does not exactly reign. Instead it paralyses. Hence the unnatural quiet.”

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32 thoughts on “‘The Testaments’ (The Handmaid’s Tale #2) by Margaret Atwood – Book Review

        1. Oh I very much agree with you. While I wasn’t a lover of the Handmaid’s tale it certainly is a book that deserves its place in the pantheon of greats for all that it says about life as a woman etc. And so I think that idea truly blinded the judges to the actually lack of quality that is The Testaments.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. Damp squib xD you slay me, girl! Glad I have no plan to read the first because clearly the sequel isn’t better. Why do authors do this? Just be happy with what you had and if you can’t write it better then don’t do it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. HAHAHA I can’t help myself Joanna. Just gotta write those honest reviews lol!!! I mean I understand why Atwood wrote this sequel with all the hype surrounding the tv show. It would be nigh on impossible to resist the almost guaranteed monetary reward that she would get and we all gotta pay those bills lol!!! It’s really the Booker prize judging panel I question. Because this is entirely not a literary read and therefore should not be proclaimed as such

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I feel like now a days most awards don’t mean anything. I mean props to her for making that money! But yeah, pick a good book lol

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  2. I did enjoy The Testaments much more than you – especially Aunt Lydia’s sections which kind of left the other two narrators in the dust – but I do understand what you’re saying. The Testaments felt very ‘commercial’ in a way The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t and they felt like two very very different books stylistically. Loved reading your thoughts! ☺️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes exactly!!! It doesn’t feel like Atwood at all does it. And okay fair enough, an author can grow and evolve… But this feels so disjointed from the gravitas of the Handmaid’s tale. I think one of the things I liked best about the Handmaid’s tale was the ending. It didn’t over explain. We were left wanting more… Whereas with the testaments we were told too much I felt! I have to agree that aunt Lydia was without a doubt the best character here. Agnes and Jade couldn’t hold a candle to her really.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Damp squib 😅 Honestly, I appreciate this review so much! It’s really well thought out (as usual of course) and I absolutely agree with you about your expectations when picking up a Booker Prize winner. Yours isn’t the first review that’s mentioned The Testaments is more of a “popular fiction” book (even mentioned by those who loved The Handmaid’s Tale) and that’s where a lot of people were let down by the book. I have a feeling I’m not going to be blown away by this book, especially if it’s so different (and boring) compared to Handmaid’s, but I’m still keen to give it a try at some point. Really fabulous review, Emer! 😍😍😍

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really think it shows a disservice to the original. While I never adored Handmaid’s tale I can totally appreciate the gravitas of that book. What it stands for in the lexicon of women’s literature. So to me the testaments felt entirely alien to that. It really fell into very cliched storytelling and eye roll worthy plot twists. I would totally encourage you to read it Dini. I’m always a believer in people reading books no matter what my opinions on them are. And you never know, you might quite like it because it’s immensely accessible and sort of thriller esque. Once you sort of set yourself up to know that you’re not getting as literary a read as the Handmaid’s tale was then you could very much enjoy the testaments for what it is; a popcorn book!

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  4. Thank you! I completely agree with you! I was so done with this book without even getting to page 100, it was the same old as you said ‘women good, men bad’ they repeated the same thing over and over again it was really annoying. Also, yes, there was no reason to write this book, Handmaid’s Tale ended so ambiguously, but in case of dystopia, thats the best possible ending!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. YES!!! Exactly that!!! I am so glad I am not alone in feeling underwhelmed by this whole novel. To me it undermines the integrity of the handmaid’s tale. And as you said that ambiguous ending was the best possible way that novel could have ended so to return to Gilead to go behind the curtain so to speak really did not make sense to me.
      Also my apologies in replying so late to your comment, I must have missed the notification and only spotted your comment this evening. :))))

      Liked by 1 person

          1. Exactly my point. They were so flat, they didn’t do anything. It was also so irritating to see the same old sentiments about men being bad people, I mean we get it, it’s been established multiple times. I feel like Atwood really didn’t have anything to write so she wrote the exact same thing over and over again. Best done and dusted.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Yes!! There was absolutely no nuance regarding the male characters at all. They were just extreme vilifications of the worst of society which ultimately felt like over the top cartoon villains. And that isn’t feminist to me. It’s just lazy writing

              Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Kitty!!! I think because the ending of the Handmaid’s tale was rather perfect really that this book felt unnecessary. So much of the fear and mysteriousness of the first book was explored in this and it just didn’t work imo. And the writing… Feels markedly different from the first and not in a good way!

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