The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood
It's just as well I didn't read this book when I bought it in December 2011 on sale. I probably would have scoffed at the idea that a hard-line fascist patriarchy could take over what was once America. Reading it in May 2012 now I'm not nearly as skeptical. Hearing the hard-line stances of those like Rick Santorum and Rush Limbaugh infamously calling a woman a [rhymes with "glut"] for wanting birth control makes me think there is a portion of this country that would enact something just like Atwood describes.
What she describes in "The Handmaid's Tale" is a patriarchal society where most women are stripped of all rights. There's a caste system of sorts enacted. At the top are the "Wives" who are (obviously) the wives of high-ranking officials in the new regime. There are also "Econowives" who are the wives of lesser officials. The Wives have servants called "Marthas" who toil away in the kitchens and so forth. And then since most Wives are older and infertile, there are the Handmaidens. The Handmaidens are tasked with giving birth to a baby, which is then turned over to the Wife to raise.
Now since this is a hard-line religious establishment where doctors and scientists are killed or locked up, they can't use scientific means like artificial insemination. Instead there's a whole bizarre ritual that takes place every few nights that involves the Commander (the male head of the household) getting it on with the Handmaiden while the wife is present. There's nothing seductive or kinky about all of it; it's all pretty sterile, which might be why it's ineffective.
The person telling the tale is a Handmaiden known as Offred (as in she's Fred's property). She describes life in her household and at other intervals talks about life before the new order took over. In that life, Offred had a real name and a husband named Luke and also a daughter. She had a feminist mother and a lesbian friend named Moira.
I think if you want to complain about anything it's that not a lot really HAPPENS in terms of plot. So if you were looking for a taut thriller or anything like that, then you wouldn't enjoy this. The obvious point of comparison would be "1984". I would also say that was a better book in that Orwell has more of a story arc concerning Winston being seduced by the "rebellion" and then betraying the one he loves in order to save his own skin, thereby crushing his spirit. (Oh sorry for the spoilers.) While Atwood's book is riveting, the world she builds doesn't really go anywhere. Offred isn't forced to make the same choices as Winston. And I have to say I found the last 6% or so, the epilogue, to be a little corny.
Still, with the recent events I already mentioned, the hard-line anti-abortion laws being enacted in "red states" and so forth, I think this is an important book to read (or reread) at this point in history. Especially if you're female you should read this to see the worst that can happen.
That is all.