In just three years the USA has gone from freedom to total control. Women and men are divided into classes, but unlike women, men can work their way up through the ranks. Women, however, have a set place in society and that place is vividly displayed by the clothes they wear: striped gowns for the lower classes, the econowives; green gowns for the Marthas, the servants of the upper classes and red for the Handmaidens, the surrogates who bear the children of the infertile upper classes. It is to the Handmaidens that the main character of the story belongs. Her name is Offred and in the time before, she had a daughter, a husband, a job and a bank account. This was all taken away from her and now she is just a walking womb. She is not permitted to read or possess anything other than her clothes. She is also not allowed to converse with anybody more than is strictly necessary, there are ears everywhere to hear what she is saying and tongues ready enough to report her words. If she fails to get pregnant she will be sent away to 'the colonies' whose members clean up toxic waste and where life expectancy is low. Despite all her attempts to remain a good citizen she gets drawn deeper and deeper into subversive activities.
I first read this book a few years ago and couldn't understand what all the hype was about. I think the reasons I didn't like it that much the first time round were that it is quite slow, written in the first person, dystopian (I prefer post-apocalyptic) and held up as an example by feminists. None of these qualities really endeared me to the story although I found the idea itself intriguing. I was used to more pace and more action. In the few years' interval my tastes seem to have broadened because I enjoyed it much more this time, probably largely due to the fact that I knew what to expect. I love the historical notes at the end, they give the story a feeling of authenticity. The same device was used in 'the Passage' and I enjoyed it then, too. It's cool to read about something in the future as if it is already in the past. As for the feminist side, well, that isn't a problem with the book, that is a problem with my understanding of the word. When I think of feminism I think of women who don't want equality but a reversal of roles. That isn't what this story is about. I really hope though, that if some government today decided that women couldn't own money or have a job, we would fight harder than the women in this book. Maybe we should start hoarding our cash in our pillows - just a thought ;-)