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One-Star Reviews for The Handmaid’s Tale

This year’s SkepchickCON at CONvergence is dystopia themed, so in order to get ready for all my panels I’ve been reading and rereading dystopian classics. The Handmaid’s Tale, the speculative fiction novel by Margaret Atwood, was one of the top books on my list that was due for a reread. When I had finished reading it, I headed on over to Goodreads to give it a deserving 5-stars.  I wanted to see what some of the other readers at Goodreads thought of the book so I scrolled down to the reviews. Near the top was a one-star review by a reader named Pollopicu. Now, I can understand that everyone has different tastes, but giving only one-star to such a well-regarded book like The Handmaid’s Tale seemed like such a break from norm that I became really interested in Pollopicu’s reasoning for such a low rating. After reading her one-star review, I scrolled down to the next one-star review, and then the next. I then moved over to Amazon which had an even bigger array of one-star reviews. I started to notice that in many of these reviews the reviewer had either misunderstood the book entirely, doesn’t quite understand the way literature works, or underestimated the fact that misogyny is an actual thing that exists in our world today. I picked out some of my favorite lines from these reviews, to share with you all.

For those of you who have not read The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s a speculative fiction story of a dystopian future in which the United States had been plunged into a devastating war, leading to a controlling government that has instituted strict policies based on fundamentalist biblical ideals. On top of this, due to the aftereffects of the war, there is a birth crisis in which most women and men are sterile and most conceived babies are born deformed. Babies are in such high demand that a female caste system is instituted in which fertile women are shuffled from home to home of elite families, attempting to get pregnant and give birth to a viable child. Women in the Republic of Gilead, the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, are valued only for their fertility. Sex and sexuality outside of the ceremonial act of attempted conception is outlawed. Women’s lives are highly restrictive and commodified even as the men in this world regularly and knowingly cheat the system with no consequences. The book is written in a stream-of-conciousness manner with the main character retelling the stories of her past in the way that she remembers it, making her also a bit of an unreliable narrator. It’s beautifully written but not always straightforward, leaving much to the reader to figure out on your own.

With that in mind, here are some of my favorite lines from the one-star reviews of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Pollopicu writes

I don’t believe I’ve ever come across a novel yet in which there is no distinction between the narrator and the character.. It took me quite a while to get used to it. I had to go back and re-read sentences again and again, which doesn’t really lend itself to a relaxing reading experience. It slowed me down quite a bit.

Pollopicu, I would like to introduce you to a writing style called “first person narrative.” It’s when the main character in a book also acts as the narrator, describing the events from their point-of-view. It’s actually fairly common. Your Goodreads profile says that you have read over 300 books, so i’m a little surprised this is the first time you’ve ever come across a first person narrative.

First 100 pages:

Really annoying. ..why?, well because I felt like a juicy bone was being waved in front of my face. Like when someone asks you, “guess which celebrity died today?” and you ask, “who?” and they say, “well why don’t you guess?” and you answer “I don’t know, I give up, just tell me”, and this keeps going back and forth, back and forth, and finally you just want to say, “forget it, it’s not worth it” and walk away. That’s how I felt reading this book.

Yes, Atwood’s writing style is not very straightforward. She doesn’t come out and tell you exactly what is happening. Instead, as the reader you have to do a little bit of work to put together the pieces and figure out for yourself what exactly is happening. If you’re paying attention, you should be able to figure out pretty early on the conceit of the book.

the other thing that got me was that the entire female democracy has fallen apart and all Of-Fred could think of was her need to have sexual intimacy with a man. Not to mention that she never seemed appropriately upset about the fact that her husband and daughter have been taken from her.

I’m starting to wonder whether we read the same book. In The Handmaid’s Tale that I read, Offred thinks about a lot more than sexual intimacy. She spends a lot of time pining for the life she once had, struggling to deal with the boredom and lack of freedom in her current life, and fearing over what may have happened to her lost husband and daughter. In fact, a large portion of the book is Offred remembering the good and bad times with her family and worrying over what may have become of them. When she finally is able to have some consensual sexual intimacy, she is hardly able to enjoy it because all she can think about is her husband. It astounds me that anyone could read this book and come away with the idea that Offred wasn’t “appropriately upset” about losing her husband and daughter when it’s such an extensive part of the book. 

Let’s move on to a section of another Goodreads’ review by reader Kate: 

You can change the law all you want, but society, culture, has to be willing to follow. Even in the face of a fertility crisis and terrorism, why was society so willing to enslave women? It’s a hard pill for me to swallow, because Atwood’s society is not far enough removed from our own in its timeline.

Actually Kate, the premise of the book is not all that far off from reality. Societies do exist today that highly restrict women’s movements and bodies. Where women are not allowed to be out alone in public. Where women are “owned” by men. Where women must wear specific types of clothing that covers up their bodies lest a man catch a glimpse of an ankle and be unable to control his sexual urges. This is not only something that exists in the world we live in today, but it exists right here in the United States among fanatical Christian sects, the same form of Christianity that gains political power in Atwood’s novel. You don’t need to go to a dystopian future to find a world in which fundamentalists Christians are passing laws that restrict female sexuality and force pregnancy and birth on fertile women in the United States. Between 2010 and 2014, over 300 laws restricting abortions were enacted under State laws, mostly due to lobbying by the same types of religious groups that exist in the novel.

It’s an irrational feminist’s fears exposed, that the world is out to get you at every turn–especially the men, especially the women controlled and brainwashed by the men. Overall, the summary for this book could be this: Almost anyone with a penis is mostly unfeeling and evil, deep down. He doesn’t care. He will betray you. Even when you’re dead and gone, he will chuckle at your misfortune and demise. No, this isn’t sexist or a generalization. Of course not. Not at all.

Except, ironically, it is.

The fundamentalist Christians in The Handmaid’s Tale do teach that “anyone with a penis is mostly unfeeling and evil, deep down.” They teach that men are unable to control their sexual urges, which is why women must cover their bodies and stay away from men. They teach that if a women is raped, it must have been because she tempted her rapist with her body. However, the book itself doesn’t espouse any of these views. These ideas are all put forward to show exactly how wrong the powerful religion of the Republic of Gilead is. Offred doesn’t believe any of these things because she can remember her life prior to the war and remembers her husband and how much she loves him and he loved her. At the end of the book, she is saved by her lover Nick who uses his underground connections to smuggle her out of the country. No man in the book betrays Offred. I’m wondering if perhaps you were confused when reading the book and thought the Commander, the Aunts and the government of the Republic of Gilead were actually the protagonists rather than the enemies.

Over at Amazon, Francisco J. Torres writes in his review

The story is poorly written and I thought the writer did this in purpose to show how boring the life of the female character is in the society that was established after a coup d’état orchestrated by an extremist religious group in the USA. The female character does not show any ambition or any interest in changing her life and she spends most of her tome remembering how things were better before the coup d’état .

I assume “the female character” you are referring to is the main protagonist Offred, but perhaps not as there were, in fact, many “female characters” in this book. Assuming you mean Offred, she actually spends the entire book both pining for the life she once had and attempting to figure out how to escape her current life. However, she is given so little freedom that there is not anything she could possibly do to get out of the life she has. For most of the novel, she does not know one other person who might have a connection that could smuggle her out of the country. Even making slight mention to the wrong person of the fact that she doesn’t actually believe the tenants of the required religion could get her killed or banished to the colonies, arguably a worse place than where she is currently. She is confined to a life of slavery with seemingly no escape, so yes she is not particularly “ambitious.” Being ambitious is particularly difficult when you are given no options. Even so, she remains hopeful in the face of extreme odds and takes any chance she can get to the fight or escape the system that enslaves her.

In SillyLilly’s review, she writes: 

I felt like I really had to drudge through to get to the end, which led to the reason I am leaving 1 star instead of 2 or 3. The book just ends. Not like in an ambiguous, choose your own destiny type ending (like The Giver, where it ends and you are left wondering if he died or if he actually found the sled and house). It left me wondering if the author died and the book was just published as-is (no, that is not what happened, according to Google). The whole thing was very alarmist and cheesy.

Sounds like you didn’t actually finish the book. The epilogue explains that the novel itself was a sort of audio diary that Offred recorded during her escape. It also explains how the underground railroad-like system that smuggled Offred to Canada worked and strongly implies that Offred escapes. Perhaps before you write a review about how much you hated the ending of a book you should actually read the end of the book.

Lastly, I’d like to leave you all with this review from Amazon reader DJ.

Wasn’t aware that it had a lot of sexual situations and foul language. It was disgusting in my opinion.

Yep. A future world where female sexuality of any kind is considered disgraceful is so completely unrealistic.

Jamie Bernstein

Jamie Bernstein

Jamie is a data, stats, policy and economics nerd who sometimes pretends she is a photographer. You can usually find her at skeptic events in Chicago or on Twitter or Flickr. She also blogs about music at Notes From Chicago Music Underground.

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12 Comments

  1. June 15, 2015 at 10:42 am —

    My rule of “very poor” review ratings:
    If you were able to stomach getting to the end of it, a “very poor” rating means the reviewer did not read it or lacks reading comprehension. I developed this rule over 20 years ago now and it has never failed me even once.

    • June 15, 2015 at 12:30 pm —

      I find I see “poorly written” as a criticism whenever the commenter disagrees with a work’s politics, but wants to appear like they’re making an apolitical critique. And because quality of writing is subjective, there’s no counterargument to be made.

      Of course, if the critique is without content, it’s due the appropriate amount of consideration: none.

      • June 15, 2015 at 1:37 pm —

        Unless you can point to technical errors. Like James Dashner’s works. Very bad. Incomplete sentences. Paragraphs unconnected to other paragraphs. Adjectives without nouns. That sort of thing.
        Otherwise, the phrase “poorly written” isn’t qualitatively different from saying “I didn’t like it.”

      • June 15, 2015 at 5:32 pm —

        Yes, I agree. There are a lot of vacuous claims you can make for a 1-star review.

  2. June 15, 2015 at 11:28 am —

    I think the first sentence you chose to omit from Pollopicu’s paragraph makes clear what they meant:

    “I guess Atwood doesn’t believe in quotation marks.. I don’t believe I’ve ever come across a novel yet in which there is no distinction between the narrator and the character.. It took me quite a while to get used to it. I had to go back and re-read sentences again and again, which doesn’t really lend itself to a relaxing reading experience. It slowed me down quite a bit.”

    Sure, it’s not as easy to mock them for not knowing what first person narrative is, but I think they make a valid point about the difficulties in distinguishing narrative statements from dialogue. It’s a readability issue.

    (Kinda like leaving out important parts of a quote when criticizing what someone says.)

  3. June 15, 2015 at 11:31 am —

    So they read an Atwood novel and were upset it was a novel about a confusing, sexist dystopia explained to you by an unreliable narrator?
    Next, head over to Pizza Hut and get angry they mostly serve pizza there.
    I think “Surfacing” messed with my head more than any other book that wasn’t written by Philip K Dick.

  4. June 15, 2015 at 4:44 pm —

    “…she never seemed appropriately upset…”

    If the reviewer is this judgy of sci-fi characters, just imagine how they behave with survivors of trauma or violence in real life.

    • June 15, 2015 at 7:06 pm —

      To be fair, there are some people who like their SF to be cliché space opera. (Seriously, sad puppies? You picked Kevin J Anderson, who can’t even write third-rate Star Wars fanfiction properly, as one of the authors who got robbed?)

      But yeah, whenever I hear ‘appropriately upset’, I want to smash face.

    • June 16, 2015 at 9:29 pm —

      I find a lot of complaints come from people projecting previous lousy books onto the one they are reading/watching.

      Yes, lots of SF writers throw a rape scene into a book when they haven’t any clue what to do next. That doesn’t mean every writer is doing that in every scene.

      Books are probably not such a good test because people usually only comment after they have read the whole thing (or pretend to)

      Watching the reactions to episodes of GoT this season was hilarious because every week we had the same gang of idiots come back to tell us that they were finished watching the show and would never watch it again. And every week they would complain about THE GAPING PLOT HOLES in the episodes that hadn’t been shown yet and how utterly pointless scenes were that would turn out to be pivotal a few weeks later.

      One change the showrunners seem to have decided on is to make clear that every prediction made by the red witch turns out to be wrong. And that probably isn’t a bad plan or else we might end up with a new bunch of fortune telling charlatans using the same schtick. And each of the predictable deviations is followed by people loudly complaining about how these are ‘mistakes’.

  5. June 18, 2015 at 8:56 am —

    My major issue with the book (which I love) is Ms Atwood’s claim that it’s not science fiction.
    Other than that it grand.

    • June 18, 2015 at 3:53 pm —

      Yeah, that’s a weird one.
      I mean, normally, “science fiction” requires some scientific advancement (or disaster), like say, a Ringworld.
      The story should then be an adventure/walkthrough of human society, showcasing how the discovery or innovation changed society while also developing the characters (unlike, say, Ringworld).
      I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale, so I don’t know how the sterility of the population came about, but you could certainly make the case that it’s not a sudden technological breakthrough of the kind that defines sci-fi.

  6. June 18, 2015 at 5:19 pm —

    I was amazed when I was at the theatre in Manhattan how many (putatively cosmopolitan) viewers stormed out, audibly complaining. The majority of them during the sex scenes with both the wife and the handmaiden. It was SUPPOSED to be disturbing, you halfwit conservative fucks!!!

    I noticed the same thing when re-watching District 9 with some conservative friends. They kept screaming at the screen “nuke the fucking n****r cockroaches!!”. They simply did not understand the concept of oppression, since it is only something they have done, rather than something they have suffered.

    And yeah, as for 1-star reviews, it’s common as pig tracks when a brilliant piece of literature says something positive about the working class or women or gays or blacks or Latinos……seriously, check out the reviews for Grapes Of Wrath or How Green Was My Valley or The Open Veins, and you’ll see all sorts of complaints about grammar or metaphor, when what they really mean is Libertarians Hate Brown And Poor People, So Why Doesn’t Anyone Except Ayn Rand Speak To Us?????

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