Audie Award Nominee, Fiction, 2013
Margaret Atwood's popular dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale explores a broad range of issues relating to power, gender and religious politics. Multiple Golden Globe award-winner Claire Danes (Romeo and Juliet, The Hours) gives a stirring performance of this classic in speculative fiction, one of the most powerful and widely read novels of our time.
After a staged terrorist attack kills the President and most of Congress, the government is deposed and taken over by the oppressive and all controlling Republic of Gilead. Offred, now a Handmaid serving in the household of the enigmatic Commander and his bitter wife, can remember a time when she lived with her husband and daughter and had a job, before she lost even her own name. Despite the danger, Offred learns to navigate the intimate secrets of those who control her every move, risking her life in breaking the rules in hopes of ending this oppression.
The Handmaid's Tale is part of Audible’s A-List Collection, featuring the world’s most celebrated actors narrating distinguished works of literature that each star had a hand in selecting. For more great books performed by Hollywood’s finest, click here.
©1985 Margaret Atwood (P)2012 Audible, Inc.
“Claire Danes sparkles in this performance…Danes’s Offred is complex, and her flashes of intense strength highlight her vulnerability. This is a consuming listen, thanks to Danes’s emotional subtleties.” (AudioFile)
Say something about yourself!
Because this has been re-released as an *Audible A-List Collection,* a selection chosen by Clare Danes for narration, I'll begin with the narration. This is one of the rare cases where a straight reading, sans the voice characterizations and the nuances one would think an actor would use, earns top scores from me. Ms. Danes reads the story with strength and conviction, wisely chosing to let the words of an outstanding poet/author give voice to the characters in this cautionary tale. The feel of this book is dark and dispassionate, a story about a violent new world where feelings and thoughts are prohibited, yet it is at the same time visceral, strong with emotion, because of Atwood's writing skills, her ironic wit, and superb story-telling abilities -- matched perfectly with Danes' talents.
I was introduced to this book in college. 1985, a women's rights to her body (i.e. abortion) was a hot topic, feminism was getting its first *report card,* and The Handmaid's Tale was either being showered with awards and praise, or being pulled from library shelves and crossed off reading lists -- a scene straight out of Farenheit 451, another *dystopian* novel where we see that repression of any kind has a price. (Atwood didn't think her work was sci-fi and argued that this was not science fiction, but rather speculative fiction.) In '85 I thought this was chilling and very futuristic.
Dystopian? Future? Speculative? ... The world is struggling from the effects (or more accurately the consequences of) of pollution, chemicals, GMO's, and radiation; our government has been extinguished, world-wide war rages, religious conflicts a large part of the cause; disease and sterility are prevalent, conception and healthy live births atypical; many species have vanished, food is scarce and rationed along with water. The Republic of Gilead (a country established within the borders of the former USA) is a violent male dominated theocracy where women have no power, young women are owned for breeding purposes, sex is a disturbing biblical ritual, the Eyes watch constantly for heretics and dissenters (routinely put to death and openly displayed). ...*Dystopian* along the lines of Clockwork Orange,1984, (Stepford Wives?), but more like good *speculation* now in 2012, where burkas, honor killings, or young girls being married off to old coots in polygamist sects are weekly headlines.
The ending of this book is troublesome for those that want a destination, or a wrap-up, as it leaves the reader unsure--left to decide between hope and complete despair. Atwood is a master at interrogating society and having the reader then try to explain it. Definitely one you will think about. Ageless and still chilling in 2012; a wonderfully distrubing tale made even better by Danes' insightful dead-on interpretation. (Fantastic to have this as a selection--great choice Audible.)
As an Audible Editor I listen for a living! British classics, YA novels, speculative fiction, and anything quirky, fascinating, or heart-wrenching.
Full disclosure: The Handmaid's Tale is my favorite book. It is my number one all-time pick among books, having topped my list since I first read it five years ago. So perhaps I came to this audiobook somewhat biased, but in a sense I think my love of the work set me up to be a harsher critic of the audio production. But listening to it served as a total reminder of why it is so incredible.
Last month, when we ran a little editorial feature about the books we were grateful for, I wrote about The Handmaid's Tale. It makes me grateful for a lot of reasons: I'm grateful to live in this society, in this time period. I'm grateful that my daughter won't know the kind of oppression so wrenchingly depicted by Margaret Atwood (who is for the record a total genius). And I'm grateful for how totally humbling this book is. No other work of literature is such a complete reminder that we are all just fragments, or moments in time, and we're all destined to become - if we're so lucky - mere historical footnotes. The framed narrative Atwood uses (and I won't elaborate so as not to spoil) really drives this point home.
I was worried that no narrator could live up to my expectations given my belief in the importance of this book. But Claire Danes is just vivid. She doesn't act, and she doesn't need to. She recounts. She breathes out the tale as if she is living it. Resigned, beaten down, traveling through hell by putting one step ahead of the other. I was utterly convinced by her performance and have not been able to shut up about it since. Everyone on my team is going to listen to this before I'm through, and I hope everyone who reads this review will too!
This book is a speculative fiction classic. The rise of the Gilead society seems all too plausible in today's political climate, and Offred's story is painful in its intensity.
I often find myself disappointed by the narrators of audiobooks, but not so with this one. Claire Danes does an incredible job reading, listening to her is like being inside Offred's head, and she manages to inject pathos into the story without ever distracting the listener from the true star: the words.
Readings this good of stories this potent are the reason audiobooks exist. If I could give it ten stars I would.
From Austen to zombies!
This was my first Audible "A-list" title, and I was not disappointed. Claire Danes was the perfect choice for this book.
What used to be the United States is now Gilead, a monotheistic regime where women are protected from "too much choice." Like our real-world foremothers of a few hundred years ago, the women of Gilead cannot earn money, own property, or vote. They have few lifestyle options: governess, domestic, prostitute, mother. Females with "viable ovaries" are drafted as "Handmaids," surrogate mothers for sterile women of the elite class.
For Offred, the Handmaid of the title, life is a chorus of "not allowed." No reading, for women may not read. No fraternization, no conversation, no acknowledgement, no unauthorized possessions like hand lotion. Only fear and loneliness remain as Offred spends her days in a grim little room from which anything she could use to kill herself has been removed.
Through it all she's starving for human interaction, yet terrified that she'll look in the wrong direction, say a wrong word, and be transferred to the ominous Colonies with the other "UnWomen." Claire Danes reads matter-of-factly, her emotions understated as if she really is Offred, who must hide all longing and pain to stay alive.
While there are plenty of great narrators to choose from among Audible titles, it's very infrequent that the performance makes the book this much better. The story is as chilling as it was when the book was published, but Danes' reading brings out the suffering, the confusion, the "how-did-I-get-to-this-awful-place" feelings in a way that didn't come out of the printed text.
This definitely goes on the A-list. Recommended for any woman, any mother, anyone at all.
I read science fiction and fantasy, but I also like literary fiction, the classics, the occasional mystery/thriller, and non-fiction.
The chilling thing about The Handmaid's Tale is not the oppressive misogynistic regime of the Republic of Gilead, but how effective it is as a police state and how plausible its operation if not its genesis is. All the small ways in which Gilead dehumanizes and isolates, turns women (men too, but especially women) into empty vessels, tools, nameless, faceless units of biological function. This is a dystopia that is actually scary and horrible because unlike Panem or, for that matter, certain other feminist dystopias written by authors named Sheri S. Tepper or Suzette Haden Elgin, this one requires minimal suspension of disbelief. Gilead is not a lot more extreme than certain Islamic regimes, the FLDS, or North Korea. Could the United States literally turn into the Republic of Gilead? Atwood proposes a massacre of the Executive Branch and Congress as the incitement for the takeover of the government by right-wing theocrats. Things get worse bit by bit, in backstory narrated by the Handmaid of the tale, until we arrive at the police state in which the nameless protagonist finds herself trapped.
Offred ("Of-Fred") never tells us her real name. She remembers the time before Gilead, when life was "normal." She had a husband. a daughter, a job. Now she is a Handmaid, a forced surrogate who, because she is one of the few women in the country who still has viable ovaries (Atwood never really explains what caused this widespread sterility, though it's implied that it's a result of pollution and radiation), is obligated to attempt to become pregnant by one of Gilead's Commanders. This obliges her to live in the Commander's house in a sort of veiled purdah, suffering the resentment of the Commander's wife, who has to participate in the humiliating procreation "ceremony." The way in which the Wives, supposedly free women of much higher status than the Handmaids or the Aunts or the "Marthas," are little better than chattel themselves despite their privileges, is something Atwood draws our attention to without spelling it out or hitting us over the head, but it's how we come to feel sympathy for the Commander's wife, Serena-Joy, former evangelical singer and advocate for a "Godly" society who is now angry, resentful, and bitter now that she's gotten what she supposedly wanted. Serena-Joy is just as oppressed and constrained as the Handmaids, she just has a prettier cage that lets her see sunlight through the bars.
Atwood has taken some flack for claiming at one point that she didn't write science fiction. Although she later backed off from that a bit, after reading The Handmaid's Tale, I can kind of see her point. The Handmaid's Tale is a lot like 1984, a speculative look at how very badly wrong things could go in our society, given a few flips of the historical dial, and the point is not the "alternate history" it creates but what this look at a dystopian society that maybe could be tells us. Is 1984 science fiction? Kind of — Orwell creates a new society, a new language, and mentions a few bits of technology that were futuristic at the time he wrote it. But it would be fair to say that it's not a conventional sci-fi story, at least, and that's also true of The Handmaid's Tale. Atwood isn't making up this fictional off-the-rails version of a future U.S. to do worldbuilding or as a vehicle for a tale about rebellion or resistance. The small bits of resistance in this book consist of a thought, a whispered conversation, a glimpse of a banned magazine, and like 1984, we never know if the supposed resistance is for real. Offred is no rebel; she pines for the old days, she hates her "reduced circumstances" and the reeducation she undergoes at the Rachel and Leah Center, but she is mostly a passive chronicler of her age, a vessel, a Handmaid. Things are done to her; she doesn't do things, though she occasionally fantasizes about doing them.
Atwood writes in descriptive literary prose; Offred's thoughts are poignant, heavy, mournful, occasionally smart-alecky, but mostly you just feel the oppressive claustrophobia, the daily dehumanization and erasure, and how readily a modern 20th century woman with a brash feminist mother can find herself submitting to such wholesale, brutal oppression as the new normal, clinging to memories of her old life while slowly forgetting who she used to be. Her oppression is a hundred small humiliations every day, none really cruel or violent, just things reminding her of her status, all the things she is no longer allowed to do (read, write, show her face to men, use hand lotion, talk to anyone about non-trivial matters). In this environment, the smallest conversation, a meeting of eyes, can become an act of rebellion, and Atwood shows us that repeatedly, how defiant and rebellious can be the simple act of asserting, "I am here, I exist, I am a person."
This was a chilling book precisely because there are no action scenes, there is no grand escape, there is no uprising, and you keep wanting Offred to have some way out, to see some way out for any of the people of Gilead, but there is no cavalry coming to bring down the tyrants, no Katniss Everdeens or District 13 here. It ends, arguably, on a more hopeful note than Orwell's book does, but then we've been told repeatedly by Offred herself that she is an unreliable narrator.
It was much less of a feminist polemic than I expected it to be. Yes, the points about right-wing Christians and their various fetishes were made, and Gilead is definitely a nightmare product of the very worst woman-hating religious extremists, but Atwood shows them slaughtering Catholics and Baptists as zealously as they kill abortionists and homosexuals, and there is relatively little soapboxing on the part of the author. The story says a lot of things about what happens when you take certain ideologies seriously, but it does not serve as a vehicle just to knock down those ideologies and push the author's own dubious ideas like certain other authors who tread the same ground broken by The Handmaid's Tale (I am looking at you, Sheri S. Tepper).
So, this book really does deserve to be read. I didn't even read it as a "cautionary tale," per se - it stands on its own as a work of fiction. The characters stand out as living human beings who talk and think like real human beings, because they are so ordinary, in their extraordinary "reduced circumstances." Is this science fiction? Kinda not really. But it is a very dark Bible-thumping dystopia, by a literary author who writes better dystopias than all those trying-too-hard SF authors.
Claire Danes gives a great performance as Offred, making her sad, introspective, and occasionally hysterical as the mood demands it, though something about her voice occasionally annoyed me in the way it drew me out of the writing and made me focus on the narrator.
The novel itself is a classic; reading the print version is a moving and terrifying experience.
But Claire Danes's narration elevates this classic to new heights. She embodies Offred so fully and completely that she has just become my favorite audiobook reader. She narrates with such conviction and yet with such grace and candor that I'm absolutely blown away by her performance. She never becomes maudlin or inappropriately emotional.
This was the perfect marriage of novel and casting. Buy it! You will not be disappointed.
It's a good thing I work at Audible because the more I listen the more I want to hear! While fiction will always be my first love, I've also discovered the wonderful world of nonfiction in audio: bios & memoirs, history, even science – perfect for multitasking and the morning commute.
There are some books that you can go back to multiple times, and continue to get something new out of with each read, or listen. The Handmaid's Tale certainly falls into this category. The impact of the story changes in contrast to the current cultural and political climate but it remains current. The fact that the world Atwood creates is far closer to “reality” makes this story that much more disturbing than the many popular and more fantastical dystopias currently targeted to the Young Adult audience.
For me, it’s been years since I first read The Handmaid’s Tale and listening to Claire Danes narrate was the perfect way to re-visit the story. She captures the almost somber mood perfectly. Clearly, she has a love of the book along with the talent to provide a killer performance. If you are looking to experience, or re-experience, a classic modern day “dystopia” as envisioned by a truly unique author, listening to this new rendition is your perfect opportunity.
I read The Handmaid's Tale in high school and was not a great fan. But I love Claire Danes so I tried the audiobook, 12 years later. She does a great job making Offred's voice come to life. Maybe it was her narration, or maybe that I'm a bit closer to Offred's age now, but it is a good book and worth the download.
Yes...Claire Danes certainly out reads me!!
Of course, ""Hunger Games" comes first to mind...but so does "The Chose One" and I put it on par with Kate Winslet's reading of "Terez Raquin" in narrative quality and twisted romance!
Her perfect pitch of dead emotion with pleading description. You can see her in the part and it feels like a block buster film.
Both the main character (Offred) and her true love. I'm sure they'd have stories to tell!
Not to be missed! Should be on A-list, if it isn't already!!
What an amazing experience to listen to the performance of this book. The story was sad, hopeless, and agonizing, but also gripping and well told. Claire Danes does an excellent job of portraying Offred (we never learn her real name). Highly recommend!
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