Margaret Atwood is an author who I will give the benefit of doubt and read anything she writes. Her blending of feminism and speculative fiction (her term)/science fiction (generally recognized) is satisfying. Her versions of a not-so-distant future are never too far from the present which makes them even more harrowing. They seem possible and because of that all the more urgent.
How could I not read The Heart Goes Last? It’s her first speculative fiction outside of her fabulous Maddaddam Trilogy. Be cautioned, the advertising around this novel is misleading. This isn’t a new book. Atwood initially published the book as a string of serial stories on Byliner beginning with I’m Starved for You and ending with The Heart Goes Last. The book appears to be a compilation of these stories with some light editing for its final format.
Society has gone both morally and economically bankrupt. Stan and Charmaine are ejected from their middle-class homes and lifestyles and forced to live out of their car. When they are offered a chance to live in an enclosed community called Consilience that would return to them some semblance of their former lifestyles, they do not stop to closely consider the offer before applying. Consilience houses accepted applicants in a 1950s style community with the understanding that half of their time will be spent serving as prisoners in Postiron. While they are in prison, a similar couple inhabits their home.
Of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch and the characters discover that the dream come true may be a nightmare with 1950s decor.
The sections within The Heart Goes Last are told in sequential order; they do not read like interconnected stories. However, each section feels disjointed because Atwood writes in a series of images. In hindsight, this could enhance Atwood’s portrayal of the dystopic world. There is no steady decline from living a middle class life to the economic ruin that Stan, Charmaine, and many Americans land in. This structure does, in the end, make the story suffer. The sections don’t appear to add up to anything plot-wise and the same could be said for the characters.
Stan and Charmaine are not active players, they are manipulated like puppets by bigger players. That’s certainly the point in an America where no one is really in charge of his or her destiny. The downside as this portrayal makes them less interesting to follow, especially when they don’t change or appear to learn anything from the start to the end of the novel. Atwood puts her characters and her readers through a grinder. You’ll feel worn out after turning the last page, but not satisfied.
The best dystopias don’t leave their readers satisfied, but discontent. Readers should be upset after reading dystopias because how else to prevent the preventable imagined disasters? The Heart Goes Last had glimpses of the old Atwood brilliance, but the structure distracted from the disheartening message.
Goodreads rating: 2 stars