The Testaments—Excellent Speculative Fiction from Atwood

The Testaments 

by Margaret Atwood  

Published 2019

Read Dec 2019

Although Atwood wrote The Testaments as a kind of sequel to the The Handmaid’s Tale to address a question from readers about what brought down the country of Gilead,  this book can be read without reading The Handmaids’ Tale.   

The structure of this book is interesting.  Individual chapters are either excerpts from The “Ardual Hall Holograph” or transcriptions of testimony from Witness 369A or from Witness 369B.  We eventually learn the identities of the writer and witnesses.  The “Ardual Hall Holograph” was written by Aunt Lydia, a character in the Handmaid’s Tale who we learn in this book was an architect of “the women’s sphere” of Gilead and its leader.  Witness 369A was Agnes Jemimah, an upper-class girl who grew up in Gilead and was the daughter of an important Commander.  Witness 369B was Daisy/Jade/Nicole, a young woman living in Canada who marches in anti-Gilead protests and watches new of its horrors on TV. 

In both this book and The Handmaid’s Tale, there is an appendix which is a set of excerpts from a symposium on Gileadeon Studies.  The symposium described in The Handmaid’s Tale is the 12th Symposium on this topic and takes place at an International Historical Association Convention in 2195.  That symposium discusses the cassette tapes found in a footlocker that became the basis of The Handmaid’s Tale.  In this book, transcriptions of the 13th Symposium, held in 2097, are provided.  The same keynote speaker discusses the new findings—Aunt Lydia’s papers and the transcriptions of the witnesses.  Atwood’s humor shows through in these appendices as the academics bemoan the poor dating information on the various materials uncovered and spend time considering what social events the symposium offers. 

While Atwood has indicated she started writing this book to answer questions from her audience about what brought down Gilead, she also uses this book to discuss how the structure and culture of Gilead evolved.   Aunt Lydia’s Holograph describes the breakdown of the government from her vantage point as a family court judge.  She quickly describes the scene prior to the collapse of the government:  floods, tornados, hurricanes, droughts, water shortages, earthquakes, decaying infrastructure, a tanking economy, joblessness, a falling birth rate. The implementation of martial law and suspension of the constitution apparently almost seemed reasonable as armor against Islamic terrorists.   She remarks “you don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you”.  She provides her personal story from her arrest to her rise as the leader of the “women’s sphere”, telling us: “You take the first step, and to save yourself from the consequences, you take the next one.  In times like ours, there are only two directions:  up or plummet.”  She understands what she has done and why.  She understands why she has been able to stay alive and stay in power [for approximately 20 years] (Gilead has gone through several regime “clear-outs”).  We eventually understand she has over a long time developed a plan to bring down Gilead and are amazed by her patience and persistence.  Atwood has Aunt Lydia hide her manuscript in the cavity of Cardinal Newman’s Apologia ProVita Sua: A Defense of One’s Life,an actual book written by John Henry Newman in 1864 to defend his religions opinions which resulted in his leaving the Anglican Church and becoming Roman Catholic, and to defend himself from the attacks of his opposition, Charles Kingsley. 

The transcription of Agnes/Jemimah gives the reader insight on the structure and culture of Gilead.   She describes her earliest recollections (she was “chosen’ by her mother –she eventually understands this means she was one of the girls taken from their mothers), tells us about her primary school education in Gilead (approximately age 5 to about age 13) and her marriage preparation education where she learns how to behave as a Commander’s Wife. 

So Atwood uses this interesting structure to give us a look at the beginnings of Gilead and the culture and structure that have raised the first generation of girls born in Gilead (or shortly before it is formed).  Blended into this is an exciting story of how these characters come together and undertake actions that are intended to impact the future of Gilead. 

Atwood doesn’t provide a neat ending to the adventure tale.  Neither does she detail the history of Gilead between that adventure and the Symposia she references in the appendix.  However, and as usual, she writes this ‘speculative fiction” to provoke her readers to consider what might happen if….  She claims that she writes nothing that hasn’t already happened somewhere sometime….  Among the questions she leaves us are include: 1)   How does our country not lose its way and devolve into something like Gilead?  2)   Why is a reactive course in a time of substantial strife one of de-evolution of the rights of women and how do we insure against that?  3)  How would we behave if we were arrested and treated as Aunt Lydia was?  4) How do we know if we are heading towards a government breakdown?   We read Atwood to experience both her excellent writing and to be provoked into difficult questions.  This reader looks forward to more from this author. 

The Girls at 17 Swann Street–A View of a Disease

The Girls at 17 Swann Street

By Yara Zgheib

Published 2019

Read Feb 2020

This book is written in 91 short chapters which propel you forward through the story of Anna as she spends six weeks at 17 Swann Street, a residential eating disorders clinic.  Anna, a French ex-pat living in St Louis with her husband Matthius, checks into the residential eating disorders clinic at the urging of her husband after he realizes he can no longer ignore the path his wife behavior has taken and the threat to her life it poses.  They had met in Paris, where Anna had been a ballerina until an injury prevents her from dancing.  She and Matthius fell deeply in love and wed.  He leaves for a job in St Louis ahead of her and she accompanies him several months later. 

The plot arch focuses on the six weeks she spends at the clinic—meeting the other residents, getting through the meals that are difficult for all residents (included the dreaded bagel with cream cheese for breakfast), feeling guilty about her situation, and visits from Matthius.  She is told by other residents that she is lucky—she has a reason to leave—Matthius’s unwavering love for her.  Flashbacks provide some of Anna’s backstory and reveal several difficult situations in her past—an abusive boyfriend, deaths of her brother and mother, difficulties in her ballet career.  The author does not tie these issues directly to her current diagnosis of anorexia nor does Anna discuss them with her counselor. 

Although this reader was surprised that Anna’s state is assessed as improved several times through her stay, seemingly early, and she is released after only six weeks, the author does not suggest that she is fully healed and will certainly be successful in the out-patient program she enters.  Having a loving and committed spouse whom Anna clearly loves seems to be a driver for optimism and a reason to move her into an out-patient setting.  However, the author provides examples of other residents’ relapses, lengthy stays, and sometimes deadly failures. 

This is an interesting, engaging book that provides a look at this difficult disease and difficulties faced by sufferers and their families and friends. 

Olive Again–A Character We’ll Remember

Olive Again!

By Elizabeth Strout

Published 2019

Read Nov 2019

This reader finds the title somewhat unfortunate as it suggested this should be read as a second installment about Olive Kitteridge.  However, this reader believes the thirteen stories in this volume allow a person unfamiliar with Olive Kitteridge or her neighbors and friends to participate fully in her world of Crosby during this period of her life.

Strout masterfully, thoughtfully, and empathetically creates a picture of Olive from shortly after the death her husband, Henry, of four plus  decades, through the next ten years—from about age 75 to 85.  Most of the other characters are also in this approximate age group or at least nearing retirement. 

The book opens with a story about Jack Kennison and so introduces us to this man who will eventually become Olive’s second husband.     We learn the circumstances leading to his move with (now deceased) wife Betsy to Crosby, Maine.  Jack was initially asked to take some time away from Harvard following an accusation of sexual harassment.  Jack acknowledges to us an affair with a younger faculty member and that he eventually voted against her tenure, along with other members of the department.  The school settles with the woman and Jack retires.  He and Betsy move to Crosby, Maine to be away from all of that.  We learn he and Betsy had married decades previously when both were on the rebound from failed relationships.  Their marriage wasn’t a classic “happy” one, although they had enjoyed many happy times.  He now misses Betsy deeply, even after he learns that she had carried on an affair with a former boyfriend for some period of time during their marriage.  We learn their only child, a now middle aged daughter, came out to them as a lesbian.  This revelation fractured the relationship between father and daughter although not apparently that of mother and daughter.  Jack is wrestling with all of this and then manages to get stopped for speeding, an incident that doesn’t go smoothly.

Thus in a matter of twenty-one pages that comprise the opening story, the stage is set for viewing scenes of people facing their past choices, both good and bad, for missing lost spouses regardless of the happiness of their time together, for regretting lost opportunities for better relationships with their spouse and with their children, for dealing with bodies that are losing capabilities, for having medical issues, and for trying to avoid loneliness as their world is changing in ways they can’t control.  The stories are sober, lovely, refreshing, and occasionally uplifting.

Olive misses Henry terribly and Jack misses Betsy similarly but sharing this grief openly is something that initially brings them together.  They are both wiser and more mature than when they married their long-term spouses so they are pleased and feel lucky that they can turn arguments into long useful discussions.  Jack can tell Olive he loves her for who she is but sometimes it would be helpful if she was a little less Olive with him.  Olive tells us she feels Henry was her first husband but Jack is her real husband.  Jack comments to us through the narrator that Olive has become less anxious after they’ve been married for a while and he is very happy about this.

After Jack dies Olive faces life alone again, this time in Jack’s house which no longer feels like theirs.  Now Strout explores more deeply the lives of single older people and the paths that they never thought they would need to take as their ability to “safely live” alone degrades.  Strout is remarkably articulate and sincere as she has Olive face issues such as “those foolish diapers for old people” and staying in independent living versus being sent “over the bridge” to the other part of the “retirement” facility. 

Strout’s pictures of Olive’s relationship with her son, Christopher, were remarkably vivid for this reader.  Christopher is now a successful podiatrist in New York City and lives there with his second wife, her two children from two previous relationships, and their own two children, the older of which is named Henry for his grandfather.  They have never been to Olive’s home before this story’s three day visit.  The first night, after the daughter-in-law and children have gone to bed, Chris and Olive sit and talk in Olive’s living room, or more accurately, Olive listens as Chris talks.  “Olive didn’t care what he talked about. … On and on he talked, her son.  Olive was tired but stifled a yawn.  She would stay here forever to hear this.  He could recite the alphabet to her and she would sit here and listen to it.”  But of course the high hopes Olive has for the visit, although she has no idea how to really prepare for the invasion of all these children into her house, aren’t met.  Chris takes poorly the news of Olive and Jack’s impending marriage   Olive realizes her family isn’t like others—those where children come to visit with their children and everyone laughs and is happy.  She now thinks about their time, Henry, Olive and Chris, in the house Henry and Olive had built and that is now torn down for a new build, “never , ever realizing that she herself had been raising a motherless child, now a long, long way from home.” 

Some stories bring in characters from other Strout books.  She provides a story in which Jim Burgess and wife Helen, long-term residents of New York City, visit Jim’s brother, Bob, and his second wife who live in Crosby.  The Burgess Boys brothers visit their sister, Susan in nearby Shirley Falls.  Olive becomes friends with Isabelle from Isabelle and Amy.  No familiarity with either book is required to appreciate these stories (this reader can accurate attest to this as she has not read Isabelle and Amy) and their relevant themes.  Strout is very gifted in her ability to create characters “on the spot” in short stories and later pick them up and continue their story elsewhere, requiring nothing from the reader except their interest in engaging with them. 

Olive isn’t a central character or even a peripheral one in all the stories.  “The End of Civil War Days”, in eleven pages, dives into the lives of an estranged couple still living together thirty-five years after Fergus’s affair (because “back then there was no forgiveness and no divorce”).  An annual visit from their older daughter from New York City throws their lives into turmoil as they try to understand her chosen profession.  “Cleaning” is about a high-school aged girl living in an apartment with her depressed and emotionally distant widowed mother.  Shortly before his death, her father had confided that she had been his favorite child while her sister was her mother’s favorite child.  The girl cleans houses for several Crosby residents and we learn about her relationships with her clients.  Strout gives us an interesting story of someone who just wants to be seen and valued by someone. 

The photo associated with this blog was chosen because Olive reflects on her life several times in this volume.  She considers her behaviors with husband Henry, son Chris, and husband Jack.  She sometimes understands herself or her motivations but often she doesn’t.  Strout doesn’t tie up loose ends for the reader nor answers for us the questions Olive asks about herself. 

When Strout was asked in an interview whether Olive might reappear again, for instance in a book about becoming Olive, Strout indicated she didn’t think so, but she couldn’t fully know that.  This reader is content with this being the last book about Olive but this reader will also continue reading Strout’s work and hopes it will continue in this form—somewhat connected and extremely rich stories that provide scenes in people’s lives that shed light on universal topics and  themes we don’t always expect to explore but are glad when we do.