& Review: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood. Fiction. Publisher: Nan A. Talese, September, 2015

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood. Fiction. Publisher: Nan A. Talese, September, 2015

The Book Itself: Well, the story definitely has to do with a prison! The image does a good job with depicting the surrealism that can get pretty heavy in the book – our two people look washed out and vaguely happy (the woman at least, has a hint of a smile). And the whole thing is in a kind of haze. Very mood-setting.

My ReviewLiving in their car, surviving on tips, Charmaine and Stan are in a desperate state. So, when they see an advertisement for Consilience, a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own, they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month – swapping their home for a prison cell. At first, all is well. But then, unknown to each other, Stan and Charmaine develop passionate obsessions with their ‘Alternates,’ the couple that occupy their house when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire begin to take over.

I have enjoyed some Margaret Atwood books more than others. One of these days I will sit down to re-read Oryx and Crake before reading the rest of the series, and The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favorite books of all time. Some of her stand alone’s have not been my cup of tea, but overall, I like her work.

The Heart Goes Last is an interesting one. It veers in a direction that you don’t expect (or at least I didn’t).

First of all, it is one of those books that covers the synopsis within the first 50 pages or so. We get through the premise rather quickly: our down on their luck protagonists, the utopia set up of the project they get mixed up in, and Charmaine’s affair with the couple that takes over their house. After reading through the entire story that I had read on the synopsis, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I had expected those events to last the whole way. I thought they would take part in this social experiment, Charmaine would gradually meet and fall for the other man, and the conclusion would wrap it all up with the truth of the utopian experiment being exposed, both to the characters and perhaps the world within the novel as a whole.

It didn’t quite go that way. The novel includes, but is not limited to: chicken plucking, (more than) chicken plucking, cult-ish utopian leaders, a woman who falls in love and lust with a teddy bear, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe sex dolls, and knitting circles. If you haven’t gathered, there is a lot of gratuitous sex in this book. So much so that it makes the whole thing quite unsexy (not to mention unhealthy – there is no “normal,” healthy physical relationship in this book), and a little unsavory. The theme of this book seems to not be about the normal façade of a community peeled back to reveal a corrupt cult, but about how everyone is screwed up in their own special way.

Charmaine and Stan are not likable. Where she is naïve and old fashioned in a maddening way (even while having crazy sex with essentially her neighbor in abandoned houses), he is oafish and rude. They didn’t really redeem themselves either. Neither had a moment of clarity where they saw themselves for how they really acted, or changed in any way. They are not irredeemable…it’s just that Atwood didn’t make them grow.

The pacing is a little off: we rocket out from the start, there’s a sluggish, unclear middle, and a wishy washy ending. It ended with a a weak trumpet blat instead of a fanfare. And the tone is very confusing – I’m not sure whether to laugh at some of the obvious satire and tongue in cheek parallels, or consider the book to be dark and brooding, a dystopian to scare us all off from buying into something too good to be true (is that the point? I’m just plain old confused!)

It was one of those books where the premise was promising, but it just kind of snarled up into this sex-obsessed, wishy washing ending with a weak tone. Not my favorite Atwood tale.

My Grade: C-

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