A few years ago, I wrote a post about sequels I never wanted to read. At the time, I was writing because Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s unfinished book featuring characters from To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m feeling that way again, about Margaret Atwood’s new novel, The Testaments, the sequel to the classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale. I have to wonder, did The Handmaid’s Tale need a sequel? Or is it partly an attempt to cash in on how will the Hulu series is doing? I don’t want to be cynical about Margaret Atwood. As far as I’m concerned, the woman is a genius and deserves to win the Nobel Prize. But why now? Why at all?
I have no idea what’s in The Testaments, so I realize that I’m prejudging a book by a living literary legend. It might also be amazing. It might be a book we need right now. But let me return to my question: why does it need a sequel? Novels usually get sequels because they’re part of a planned series. Mystery novels get sequels all the time because the characters made a splash with their debut.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale. Each time I read it, it hit me anew. The book is a profound look at women’s rights, reproductive freedom, religion, and so many other themes. It was also brilliantly written. To my way of thinking, the ambiguous ending was the cherry on top that makes the Tale perfect. As such, why does it need a sequel?
Literary novels? Not so much. Literary novels tend to contain all they need to say in one volume. The characters have had their arcs. The climaxes have resolved. The themes linger, if the book is good, but we shouldn’t need a sequel to draw a thick line underneath them as if we’d missed the point. Writing a sequel runs the danger of turning into a high school reunion for the characters, where the good old times are rehashed more than anything else.
Who knows? Maybe The Testaments will be a great book. I think I’ll wait for the reviews (many, many reviews) to come out before I read it. It would be a pity to follow up a perfect book with a less-than-perfect book that doesn’t add anything new.