The Heart Goes Last: review

The Heart Goes Last (Edelweis ARC)
Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese

I read Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale a couple years after it was first published in 1985 and it’s one of those books that, because of life’s circumstances at the time, I’ll remember always. I remember feeling chilled when the narrator’s access to her credit cards and bank account was cut Heart Goes Lastoff—and realizing that I had (at the time) no credit card or checking account myself. With some Higher Up’s click of a mouse, the narrator’s ability to live independently was gone. And then she was obliterated. How much more power did I have, really?

Then there were Atwood’s short stories and Cat’s Eye and Alias Grace and her poetry, of course, but none ever spoke to me as clearly as her Handmaid’s Tale. So you can imagine my rush to read Atwood’s new novel The Heart Goes Last, another peek into our a dystopian future.

Described as “wittily funny” and “utterly brilliant” I found it neither–though it was intriguing, so I stayed with it. The 2008-ish U.S. economy has tanked and anarchy is just beginning to bare its ugly teeth. Stan and Charmaine are without jobs or home (they were foreclosed), and they’re living in their car, moving constantly to avoid roaming gangs and sleeping only in snatches. Charmaine does work a few hours in a dive bar; her best friends now are prostitutes who service their customers in the back room.

So when Charmaine sees an ad on TV for the Positron Project in the town of Consilience. the couples decides they have nothing to lose. They board a bus for the complimentary trip, they’re wined and dined and put up in a nice hotel—hot showers! fresh bedsheets! wine with dinner! Not everyone gets in, mind you, but Stan and Charmaine fly through the series of workshops meant to weed out the undesirables.

If they make it, a house in the cute little 50s-era town of Consilience is theirs. The catch? They spend 30 days in the Positron Prison and 30 days as townspeople for the rest of their lives. Because there’s no leaving the Project once you sign on the dotted line. The town’s motto? “Do time now, buy time for our future. Cons + Resilience = Consilience”.

Yikes.

The rest of the novel is a collage of selective euthanasia and sex robots and Elvis impersonators and an attempted escape to Las Vegas, of all places! That, and some sort of sex imprinting brain surgery that backfires occasionally, leaving one woman with a fetish for a blue knit teddy bear. The Heart Goes Last is a little bit Truman Show, with a pinch of Stepford Wives and 1984, perhaps.  (Here’s Atwood talking about the novel on NPR)

Originally written as a serial for the online publisher Byliner, the novel was entertaining—but The Heart Goes Last was no Handmaid’s Tale.

Leave a Reply