The line everyone remembers from The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian nightmare of a novel, is “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
In The Handmaid’s Tale, that line is heartbreakingly ironic. Our protagonist, Offred, does get ground down by the bastards who control her life. She is reduced, hemmed in, deprived of everything that allows her a true identity — even her real name, which we never learn. And centuries after her death, we see the academics who study her story make dirty jokes at her expense and snide remarks about her pettiness. There is no escape: The bastards grind her down and grind her down.
In The Testaments, Atwood’s newly released sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, things have changed. That famous “don’t let the bastards grind you down” invocation makes no appearance, but if it did, it wouldn’t feel ironic. It would feel aspirational. Because the three women who narrate The Testaments are emphatically not ground down.
That’s part of what makes The Testaments a very different book from The Handmaid’s Tale. The Testaments also takes place in Gilead, Atwood’s famous dystopia, 17 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale — but it’s not at all nightmarish. It contains very little of that claustrophobic dread that Atwood is so good at conjuring up.
Instead, The Testaments is a hopeful book. It’s escapist. It’s a thriller. It’s a bit of a joyride.
In that way, it shares some DNA with Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale TV adaptation, which has transformed Atwood’s ground-down Offred into an avenging angel of a character, complete with a heroic destiny. And although Atwood’s publisher repeatedly claimed that this book would stand apart from the TV show, Atwood has brought in a few plot strands that dedicated TV watchers will recognize. (If you don’t watch the TV show, you’ll be fine, everything that needs to be explained is explained.)
Atwood isn’t completely faithful to the way the TV show has expanded Gilead: There’s plenty that’s established onscreen that Atwood either ignores or downright contradicts in The Testaments. But she holds on to the central belief of the TV show, which is that Gilead is a dystopia with hope, that it will be destroyed by individual and extraordinary human beings, and that the audience deserves to see those human beings take the whole thing down.
That makes The Testaments fun to read. But it also means that this sequel feels a little less truthful, a little less likely to become immortal, than its predecessor.
The best part of The Testaments is Aunt Lydia. Yes, that Aunt Lydia.
Atwood’s Gilead is a totalitarian theocracy, and like all such governments, it is not kind to women. Fertile women who violate Gilead’s sexual purity laws are forced into life as indentured childbearing slaves, or Handmaids, and the story of one very typical and ordinary Handmaid, Offred, was the story of The Handmaid’s Tale.
The Testaments, however, is focused on the Aunts, the women who are entrusted with governing the other women of Gilead, a kind of cross between the meanest nuns at a Catholic school and the KGB. It’s the Aunts who train and discipline the Handmaids, the Wives, and the female children who must be taught to accept their fate. And to help them keep the peace, the Aunts are given special authority. Alone among the women of Gilead, the Aunts are allowed to read and write. They don’t marry and aren’t forced into childbearing slavery. They carry weapons.
Becoming an Aunt, in other words, is a pretty sweet deal. And in The Testaments, we find out how the job came to be that way. It’s courtesy of Aunt Lydia, Offred’s nemesis in The Handmaid’s Tale and, we now learn, the architect of the whole concept of Aunts in Gilead.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Aunt Lydia was a sadistic cipher, a monster who took palpable pleasure in helping to grind Offred down as she trained Offred to become a Handmaid. (Flayed feet were involved.) In Hulu’s TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, Aunt Lydia genuinely believes herself to be doing the right thing for her the women she’s in charge of; she’s a true believer with a clumsy backstory. (Turns out she was driven to darkness because a man rejected her! Whom among us.)
But in The Testaments, we’re introduced to a new version of Aunt Lydia, and she is a goddamn delight. This Aunt Lydia is a canny political operator, a former judge who saw Gilead rising up around her and figured out very quickly what she would need to do to survive, prosper, and amass some power for herself. “What good is it to throw yourself in front of a steamroller out of moral principles and then be crushed flat like a sock emptied of its foot?” she asks us. “Better to fade into the crowd, the piously praising, unctuous, hate-mongering crowd. Better to hurl rocks than to have them hurled at you.”
This version of Lydia is a stone-cold survivor, someone who was determined to build a life for herself regardless of what she has to do to anyone else to get it. And Atwood writes her with evident glee: Lydia is part witchy supervillain, dwelling with sinister imagery on how she’s become “swollen with power” — and part grumbling maiden aunt, forever complaining about her aches and pains and craving a cup of hot milk to settle her stomach.
But as The Testaments opens, Aunt Lydia is preparing to put the power she’s accumulated to some use. She’s close to death, and she has a decision to make: “Who to take down with me. I have made my list.”
What remains for us to find out is whether Lydia’s hapless victims will be those who drive Gilead or those who oppose it.
Aunt Lydia’s story is supported by the testimony of two young women: Agnes, who was raised in Gilead (viewers of the TV show will recall that Agnes is the name assigned to Offred’s kidnapped daughter after she was assigned to a Gileadean family), and Daisy, a 16-year-old with a mysterious past who grew up in Canada and is filled with teenage outrage over the human rights violations going on across the border in Gilead.
Agnes and Daisy narrate their way through their respective childhoods in chapters that alternate with Aunt Lydia’s account of Gilead’s origins and her work as an Aunt, and it’s in the younger women’s contributions that The Testaments is at its weakest.
That’s not because Atwood is bad at writing teenagers — her 1988 novel Cat’s Eye demonstrates that she has always had a sharp eye for the vicious politics of girlhood friendships, and when she takes the time to put that eye to work on Agnes’s shifting social status at school, it’s clear she’s lost none of her talents — but because Agnes and Daisy are carrying the burden of the plot. They don’t really exist as full characters in their own right. They exist to get Aunt Lydia’s plan moving.
That plan involves stolen Baby Nicole, who has featured heavily in the past two seasons of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and whose current location as The Testaments opens is mysterious: All we know is that she’s somewhere in Canada, and that by now, she’s about 16 years old. Nicole was Offred’s second child, born on the TV show. (When the book ends, Offred thinks that maybe she’s pregnant, but the reader doesn’t know either way for sure.) When Offred smuggled her out of Gilead and into Canada at the end of the show’s second season, she became a national symbol of everything that Gilead was supposedly fighting for: the safety and religious purity of their children.
“So useful, Baby Nicole,” Lydia muses: “She whips up the faithful, she inspires hatred against our enemies, she bears witness to the possibility of betrayal within Gilead and to the deviousness and cunning of the Handmaids, who can never be trusted. Nor is her usefulness at an end.”
If you think you’re pretty sure from that summary where Baby Nicole is, well, you’re probably not wrong! Nicole’s secret identity becomes clear to the reader well before it’s revealed on the page, which is part of what makes this section of the novel a little frustrating to read: It’s all so plot-driven, and the plot isn’t as elegant as it could be.
But Atwood does know how to pace a story, and as she brings Daisy and Agnes and Lydia together, the tension mounts and mounts until it becomes impossible to stop turning the pages. There’s a certain giddiness to Atwood’s writing: Look at these women working together; look at the cleverness of their plan; look at how clear it is that those who are good will succeed and those who are not will be punished. It’s a romp.
But that giddiness is also what makes The Testaments feel slighter than The Handmaid’s Tale.
The Handmaid’s Tale was the story of an ordinary woman who was trying to do nothing bigger or more special than survive, and who was barely able to manage that much. Her ordinariness was what gave the book its weight. We would all like to imagine that in the face of horror we would stand up and speak truth to power and be revolutionaries, but The Handmaid’s Tale punctured such comforting fantasies. It suggested that probably we would not be revolutionaries. Probably we would be normal people who got chewed up and spat out by the regime, because historically, that’s what generally happens to people living in totalitarian governments. They get ground down.
The Testaments is not about ordinary women. It’s about extraordinary women who do speak truth to power, who are revolutionaries, who manage to fight back against their totalitarian government without ever getting ground down. It exists less to puncture fantasies than to embody them, and it’s aspirational in a way that its predecessor never even attempted to be.
It’s fun to read. It’s beautifully written. But it feels less honest than The Handmaid’s Tale did. And for that reason, it’s hard to imagine it having the same kind of grand legacy.