The Heart Goes Last: A Novel
Genre: Speculative Fiction, Dystopian Literature, Science Fiction
Image via: Amazon
The short of it:
The Heart Goes Last: A Novel is disturbing. It’s a good read, of course (it’s Margaret Atwood we’re talking about!), but still disturbing. If you’ve never read Margaret Atwood’s works before, I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one. Granted, it does raise some serious questions about the current state of things (as do almost all of her novels).
For example: What do we truly value? How often do “we” (the collective “we” here, but definitely on a personal level as well) seek wealth, even via shady ethics? Which freedoms (freedom from poverty, freedom to choose) do we place above others? (And my favorite…) Is our world on an inevitable path toward self-induced calamity?
That being said, I personally feel that overall, the book wasn’t that great.
(I also firmly believe that The Handmaid’s Tale is Atwood’s most exceptional work story-wise, and an especially good read for newbies. Like The Heart Goes Last, The Handmaid’s Tale is easy to read, thoroughly entertaining, thoroughly alarming, and a little bit (OK a lot) dark. But simply put, Atwood does it better in her earlier work. But that’s just like my opinion, man. Check out the About page and see why I totally love it when you share your opinion, and I want you to comment about why you feel that way. Then we can discuss and learn from one another! Yay subjectivity! And literature! And conversation!)
So OK, The Heart Goes Last isn’t like The Handmaid’s Tale? It’s not as good? Let me explain. The Heart Goes Last is also easy to read, entertaining, alarming, and dark, for sure. It’s just not as captivating. I wasn’t as invested in Charmaine and Stan’s marriage, their challenges in the near-future dystopia (Atwood’s specialty!) of Consilience as, say, Offred’s (the protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale) story, Toby’s (from The Year of the Flood), or even that of the unnamed protagonist in one of Atwood’s earliest books, Surfacing.
So, back to Margaret Atwood in general. She’s the queen of speculative fiction, the one writer who manages, in almost all of her novels—granted, I haven’t read them all, so if this isn’t true for one or two, let me know!—to feature at least one vulnerable female protagonist who later reveals herself to be somewhat of a bad-ass. Or at the very least, a seemingly one-dimensional female character who eventually reveals her more complex, multifaceted humanity (which includes being somewhat of a bad-ass).
In the case of The Heart Goes Last, Charmaine is this character, an intriguing, imperfect woman and half of an intriguing, imperfect marriage. We follow Charmaine as she struggles through an especially disturbing future in which the majority of the United States population falls into poverty and is forced into desperate situations they’d otherwise never consider. Eventually, Charmaine and her husband Stan find solace in Positron (and its seemingly perfect town of Consilience)—a social experiment that promises basic necessities and even luxuries.
Of course, everything comes at a price, and in this case, Consilience residents must literally “serve” time as working prisoners to “earn” time as members of the Consilience community. Not to give too much away, but in true Margaret Atwood form, everything goes to hell in a handbasket when sex, deception, and sacrifice are thrown into the mix.
But let me be clear: This book isn’t a trade paperback. As always, Atwood adroitly raises questions about freedom (and at what point we’re willing to sacrifice personal liberties), the secrets we keep from loved ones, and the dangers of willful ignorance. She addresses poverty and politics and all of those fun topics. And she does it so well that it really seems like Consilience could be real.
So why not give it two thumbs up? Like I said earlier, I just couldn’t ever get invested in the characters. I don’t think it was just because Atwood revealed their somewhat alarming flaws. I think it’s more that their marriage (Charmaine and Stan, together forever) functions as the story’s crux. Anything Charmaine does, she doesn’t simply do herself, but she also does to Stan, however indirectly. And I couldn’t ever really get invested in their relationship, so I never fully appreciated their actions’ impact on a grander scale.
To be honest, unlike in every other Atwood book I’ve read, I found myself rooting for the male protagonist instead of the female. Maybe that was Atwood’s intention with The Heart Goes Last, or maybe I’ve just been spoiled by her other works, but for whatever reason, Charmaine just really annoyed me (pissed me off, even).
Charmaine’s irritating nature, coupled with multitudes of totally ridiculous moments (a woman falling for—and having sex with—a stuffed animal, for instance), kept me from truly loving the book. With that in mind, I am giving The Heart Goes Last the verdict below, with the stipulation that Atwood does Atwood soooo well in her other novels (and I highly recommend checking out The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, Surfacing and pretty much anything else she’s written).