Blessed be the fruit of Margaret Atwood’s beautiful brain. "The Testaments," the highly anticipated sequel to her 1985 dystopian masterpiece "The Handmaid’s Tale," is satisfyingly full of answers; a gift. If you sense a certain calm in the world upon its release Tuesday, it will be the sound of Handmaid’s Nation becoming lost in 415 wonderful new pages.
The developments will delight fans of the original novel and the television adaptation on Hulu, who have been pining to know what becomes of Offred — the young mother stripped of her daughter, her rights and her name and enslaved as a walking womb — and of Gilead, the literal-minded theocratic dictatorship that has knocked the former United States back to 17th-century Puritanical roots.
Those answers have remained tantalizingly out of reach for nearly 35 years. The final chapter of the original novel revealed that Gilead would fall and offered a glimmer of hope that Offred escaped. But it did not say how.
The must-watch Hulu series, recently renewed for a fourth season, for which Atwood has worked as a consultant, has piled on astonishing performances and rightly raked in awards. It has become a cultural touchstone at a time when many see its main themes developing in real life. Repudiation of science, repeal of reproductive rights, attacks on journalism, white supremacy, roundups of immigrants, family separations — all were precursors to Gilead’s rise.
Atwood, winner of the St. Louis Literary Award in 2017, told the Post-Dispatch in an interview then that she would rather that headlines not follow the arc of her stories.
“If I had a choice between these books not being current, plus literary oblivion, or their being current, plus increased attention to these books, I would choose the first,” she said. “I would prefer that they not be current. Because the fact that they are current means there is a lot of unhappiness being caused.”
Although Hulu expanded the Handmaid’s universe with new characters and events, both before and after the coup, it has also frustrated viewers by keeping Offred’s arc on spin cycle.
The net sum of three seasons is that Offred, whose real name is revealed to be June Osborne, has hardened into a leader in a resistance that can barely make a dent in the regime’s armor. She smuggles one daughter, baby Nicole, to Canada but stays behind to try in vain to locate her older daughter, Hannah. Meanwhile, her husband sulks in Toronto and shows up for the occasional protest. What the hell, Luke?
"The Testaments" quickly distinguishes itself from the oppressive tone of the original novel, folding in events from the TV series and marching briskly forward with June’s battle-ready spirit. Elements of humor abound, with wry reminders of Gilead’s origins. (Snort laugh: a Gilead café named after St. Louis-born anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly.)
Violence is no longer meant to shock or sink in. That wouldn’t work after all this time, all this pain. Now it’s a plot device that interlaces with hope and heroism and intrigue to carry a great story. In other words, like a feature film. And that could very well be in the works, as Hulu is developing "The Testaments" for the screen.
In an interview with Time, Atwood, who turns 80 in November, said the sequel would also mark an end to “wheel spinning” on the Hulu series. “They have to move her along — and I’ve given them lots of ways of how that would happen.”
The Testaments begins 17 years after the events of the original novel and finds Gilead rotting from the inside out, licking its wounds from a long-running war with the Republic of Texas and barely able to protect its border with Canada. Baby Nicole is still missing after all these years. Her face is everywhere, a rallying point for a nation struggling for legitimacy among its own citizenry and in the world.
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Three women take turns telling the story, and Offred is not one of them. The mystery of her fate haunts and informs the story, but her existence is barely hinted at. Nor does the story mention Fred and Serena Waterford, the first Gilead couple to “own” Offred, last seen at the end of Season 3 in custody in Canada for war crimes against her.
Two of the narrators are young women who are strangers to each other. One grew up in Gilead and the other in Canada. You can guess who they might be.
The third is a woman who is not so young: Aunt Lydia, the ruthless, nun-like enforcer from "The Handmaid’s Tale" entrusted to the regime’s most essential task, that of assigning fertile women to the households of Gilead elite to be ritually raped and impregnated.
Like baby Nicole, Aunt Lydia is a national icon. For her contributions to the nation’s foundation, her followers leave tributes at the base of her statue outside Ardua Hall, a convent-like structure where she presides over the Aunts who enforce gender roles of Gilead’s women and girls. She also runs the Pearl Girls, missionaries who venture into Canada to find lost girls of the north and sell them on the virtues of making babies south of the border, and can double as spies or terrorists when it suits her plan.
Lydia is not so gung-ho for Gilead these days. Her clandestine intelligence operation has been collecting dirt on Gilead’s elite for more than a decade, and it’s ugly. To borrow a phrase from the first book, the bastards have ground her down. The biggest bastard of all is Commander Judd, the mastermind behind the coup that put Gilead in power, whose serial killings of his own child brides have been neatly covered up to protect the regime’s reputation.
Lydia channels her disgust into diary pages she tucks into library walls for generations to find — she hopes — after Gilead’s eventual collapse. Although no less a monster, Lydia earns sympathy. Her alternative had been death. As she explains, “Better to hurl rocks than to have them hurdled at you.”
The delightful twist is that June’s anger and indignation is finally embodied in the one person in Gilead with the power to make a difference — and it’s not just a woman, of all people, under his eye, it’s Aunt Lydia.
"The Testaments" has already been shortlisted for the Booker Prize and will be in the running for countless more honors. It may not endure as a monumental work of literature like "The Handmaid’s Tale," but that surely was not Atwood’s goal. She has a story to tell. It's her story. She owns it. People want more of it, and she’s going to keep telling it as long as she can and in any format she chooses.
20+ eye-opening books you'll want to read this fall
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In the apocalypse drama "Bird Box," people are compelled to commit suicide when they see a mysterious force. Venturing outdoors requires blindfolds, a mighty hindrance to navigating the world.
Books generally aim to help readers see the world better — or show how perceptive writers see into themselves. This fall, look for several books with characters who see more than others ("The Institute"), whose job it is to scrutinize reality ("Life Undercover") or who boldly reveal their own struggles and growth ("How We Fight for Our Lives").
Some are by favorite authors such Margaret Atwood, whose eagerly awaited "The Testaments" is a sequel to "The Handmaid's Tale." Lara Prescott writes about "The Secrets We Kept," and Deborah Levy creates "The Man Who Saw Everything."
According to the dust jacket for a sequel to "Bird Box," the blindfold is back. But aren't we eager to learn when they can take it off? Here's a roundup including that book and 19 more fall titles you'll want to see on your bedside table. Plus, there are additional suggestions to look into if you whip through these 20.
Books are listed alphabetically, with some information drawn from publishers’ descriptions and prepublication reviews.
"Akin" by Emma Donoghue
A retired chemistry teacher suddenly must care for a great nephew he doesn't really know. Together they make a trip to Nice, France, to try to puzzle out family secrets from World War II. Donoghue, the author of "Room," challenges herself with every new book. (Little Brown, Sept. 10)
Also: "Find Me" by Andre Aciman
"Blue Moon" by Lee Child
Jack Reacher makes his 24th outing trying to help an elderly couple who owe money to a loan shark while he also contends with a gang war involving Albanians and Ukrainians. (Delacorte; Oct. 29)
Also: "Agent Running in the Field" by John Le Carré and "Heaven, My Home" by Attica Locke
￼"Carrie Fisher, A Life on the Edge" by Sheila Weller
The actress and writer Fisher was always candid about her own problems and experiences, but perhaps an evenhanded biography will bring even more light to the woman who both portrayed and embodied a "feminist action hero." (Sarah Crichton Books; Nov. 12)
Also: "Home Work" by Julie Andrews
"The Dutch House" by Ann Patchett
It's been three years since Patchett's "Commonwealth," so fans will welcome this new novel about another broken family that also retains some close relationships. It focuses on a brother and sister raised with wealth but whose fortunes fell after their father's death. (Harper; Sept. 24)
Also: "All This Could Be Yours" by Jami Attenberg
"Everything Inside" by Edwidge Danticat
The author of "Breath, Eyes, Memory" and "Brother, I'm Dying" collects eight stories in her new book. Set in Haiti and Miami, the stories deal with families whose members migrate both to and from the Caribbean. Danticat, the newest winner of the St. Louis Literary Award, will accept it here Oct. 24. Get free tickets at lib.slu.edu/literaryaward. (Knopf; Aug. 27)
Also: "The World Doesn't Require You" by Rion Amilcar Scott
"The Giver of Stars" by JoJo Moyes
For lovers of Moyes' books and of historical fiction, this Depression-era novel involves several women who want to get out of the house. They do it on horseback, delivering books to Kentuckians as part of Eleanor Roosevelt's traveling library. (Pamela Dorman Books; Oct. 8)
Also: "Tidelands" by Philippa Gregory and "A Single Thread" by Tracy Chevalier
"How We Fight for Our Lives" by Saeed Jones
A highly anticipated coming-of-age memoir by a black, gay man raised in the South. Jones, whose poetry was published in "Prelude to a Bruise," will be in St. Louis on Oct. 14 at the High Low. (Simon & Schuster; Oct. 8)
Also: "Open Season" by Ben Crump and "Make It Scream, Make It Burn" by Leslie Jamison
"Hymns of the Republic" by S.C. Gwynne
In this examination of the final year of the Civil War, writer Gwynne wraps together the stories of black soldiers in the Union Army, Missouri's guerrilla war, the surrender at Appomattox and the assassination of President Lincoln. (Scribner; Oct. 29)
Also: "The Second Founding" by Eric Foner and "Dreams of El Dorado" by H.W. Brands
"The Institute" by Stephen King
Adults seek to take advantage of locked-up children who have the powers of telepathy and telekinesis. The basic plot sounds like a cousin to "Stranger Things," but the horror master no doubt puts his own mark on his fat new novel. (Scribner; Sept. 10)
Also: "A Song for a New Day" by Sarah Pinsker and "Frankissstein" by Jeanette Winterson
"Life Undercover" by Amaryllis Fox
The former CIA agent, recruited at age 21, tells about learning how to get out of car trunks, track arms deals and predict terror cells. Publishers Weekly says the book reads like a "great espionage novel." But no longer undercover, Fox now co-hosts the History Channel's "American Ripper." (Knopf; Oct. 15)
Also: "Becoming Eve" by Abby Chava Stein
"Malorie: A Bird Box Novel" by Josh Malerman
Millions who had never heard of the book watched a blindfolded Sandra Bullock save two children in "Bird Box" on Netflix early this year. But probably a lot of them will now be interested in the apocalyptic thriller's sequel, "Malorie." Will she shed the blindfold, find love and keep those little birds alive? Safety is always precarious when you can't see the enemy. (Del Rey; Dec. 3)
Also: "Full Throttle" by Joe Hill
"The Man Who Saw Everything" by Deborah Levy
A unique and challenging novel by the author of "Hot Milk" has a historian hit not once but twice while walking on the iconic Abbey Road in Britain. After the first time, he travels to Berlin just before the fall of the wall. After the second accident, he struggles to remember the past. (Bloomsbury; Oct. 15)
Also: "Quichotte" by Salman Rushdie
"Me" by Elton John
Perhaps the bigger the star, the shorter the title? Elton John releases his simply named autobiography about his youth as Reginald Dwight, his stardom, addiction and getting clean. (Henry Holt; Oct. 15)
Also: "Face It" by Debbie Harry and "Janis" by Holly George-Warren
"Night Boat to Tangier" by Kevin Barry
Former Irish smugglers banter as they try to catch one of their daughters coming to Spain by boat. Barry's prose is known for its precision and creativity. Publishers Weekly says of the novel, "As far as bleak Irish fiction goes, this is black tar heroin." (Doubleday; Sept. 17)
Also: "Girl" by Edna O'Brien
"Olive, Again" by Elizabeth Strout
Strout's connected stories in "Olive Kitteridge" won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008, and Frances McDormand won an Emmy for her work as the brusque title character in the HBO miniseries. The new book is dubbed "a novel" although it, too, is made up of linked stories. Whatever it's called, readers will love having more Olive. Strout will be at St. Louis County Library on Oct. 24. (Random House; Oct. 15)
Also: "The World That We Knew" by Alice Hoffman
"Red at the Bone" by Jacqueline Woodson
A moving, character-driven story of three generations of an African American family. The second short novel for adults by the accomplished writer for children. (Riverhead; Sept. 17)
Also: "The Topeka School" by Ben Lerner
"The Secrets We Kept" by Lara Prescott
A historical tale inspired by a true story involving the CIA and "Doctor Zhivago" has two secretaries attempting to smuggle the Russian love story out of the country so it can be published around the world. Prescott will be at Left Bank Books on Nov. 14. (Knopf; Tuesday)
Also: "The Shadow King" by Maaza Mengiste
"The Testaments" by Margaret Atwood
Apparently set 15 years after Offred's climb into a van, the sequel to Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" is told by three female characters. Little more about the novel is known yet, and it's likely to be one of the most talked-about books of fall. Hulu's adaptation of "The Handmaid's Tale" recently aired its third season and will return for a fourth. (Doubleday; Nov. 10)
Also: "The Divers' Game" by Jesse Bell
"The Water Dancer" by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The cultural critic ("Between the World and Me") makes his fiction debut with the story of a young man who barely remembers his mother but otherwise has extraordinary recall. Enslaved on the land of his master (and father), Hiram uses his memory in an effort to aid the underground railroad. (One World; Sept. 24)
Also: "The Beekeeper of Aleppo" by Christy Lefteri
"The Witches Are Coming" by Lindy West
The acclaimed essayist who tackled misogyny and fat shaming in "Shrill" is back with new work. She's one of several writers observing the progress of #MeToo and "the world-changing magic of truth." West will be at .ZACK on Nov. 13. (Hachette; Nov. 5)
Also: "She Said" by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey and "Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl" by Jeannie Vanasco