As I read The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood, I had a hard time believing what I was reading. My prior experiences with Atwood’s novels did not prepare me for what I found between the covers of this disturbing novel—and not in a good way. All of the other books by Atwood that I’ve read—The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace, and Oryx & Crake—were imaginative and deeply thoughtful. The Heart Goes Last, however, was so bad that I’m still recovering from disappointed shock.
Not only did my past experiences with Atwood’s novels not prepare me for this book, I feel the critical reception failed to warn me, too. I don’t remember hearing much about The Heart Goes Last on the bookish internet. Perhaps the critics chose, unusually for them, to follow the “if you can’t say anything nice” rule for once. I wish they had spoken up. Since they didn’t, let me. Because of all the issues I had with this book, I’m going to do something different from my usual format. Instead of a typical review with a plot summary, I’m just going to talk about all of the things that bothered me about this book in list format. The list will contain spoilers.
- Consent. In this book, the owners/founders of the Consilience Project have created a procedure that will cause anyone who undergoes it to fall in deep love/lust with the first thing they see with two eyes after they wake up. The people (usually women) who undergo this procedure are not warned what’s going to happen to them and, essentially, they become willing sex-slaves and Stepford wives. The Handmaid’s Tale also explored women who have had their right to consent taken away, but what bothers me most about this book is the way the lack of consent is barely examined for the problem it is. Given how important
- Lack of deep characterization. One of the things I loved about Atwood’s other books is the way she creates complex, human characters. That didn’t happen in The Heart Goes Last. The novel switches between two main characters, Stan and his wife, Charmaine. While we spend a bit more time with Stan, both characters remain partial cyphers. I sort of knew why they were acting the way they were, but they remain more symbolic than fully realized. Without the human element to the characters, I failed to be invested in anything that happened to them.
- Half-assed satire. I detected references to socialism, the panopticon, The Stepford Wives, and several other themes, but Atwood failed to stick to any of these and turn The Heart Goes Last into effective satire. The first part of the book, where we learn about the dire financial situation Stan and Charmaine face was the best part of the book. After that, the book cycles too rapidly through its allusions to politics, sex, etc. to settle down and actually say something interesting.
- Bizarre and unbelievable plot and setting. When I read Divergent, I remember thinking that the society couldn’t work, that it was a thought experiment that had gotten out of control. I thought the same thing about The Heart Goes Last because nothing about the Consilience Project makes sense. The plot just gets weirder and weirder (featuring sexbots, prison timeshare, heists that go too well, mysterious motivations by secondary characters that push the main characters around, and the love-slave procedure). If the satire had been better, I might have given the plot a pass. As it is, both are just awful.
- Thoughtlessness. What I love about the other books I’ve read by Margaret Atwood is the obvious thought and care that went into them. I first read The Handmaid’s Tale more than a decade ago and it’s still a touchstone for me when I think about feminism. In Atwood’s other books, the plot would extrapolate from current trends and attitudes and form scenarios that make readers think about human rights, truth and justice, ecology, religion, and so on. This book just feels like Atwood put a bunch of odds and ends in a box, shook it up, and wrote about things in the order they fell out of the box. This book was stupid; it was so stupid that it made me angry because I know Atwood can do better.
I wasn’t planning on reading The Heart Goes Last. The premise didn’t interest me at all. I read it because it was my book club’s selection for the month. There was really only one good thing that came from reading this book for book club: we had one of our liveliest discussions ever. It’s just too bad that it was a hate-reading.