I recently read The Handmaid's Tale for the first time and, when I finished it, I wondered why it had taken me such a long time to read it. Given today's political climate, the issues dealt with in that book are still so relevant to today's political discourse, so when I saw the synopsis of this book, I thought I'd hit another home run. It seemed to be a cross between The Scarlet Letter (a book that I love) and The Handmaid's Tale, so what could go wrong? Well, in a word, plenty. Spoilers to follow.
First off, this isn't what I would identify as a bad book. The writing is pretty well done, for the most part. The concepts are excellent, particularly the whole idea of Chroming. I found this to be not only an interesting premise, but one that was rather scary because it seems like a possibility. I was very impressed by the depth of the world the author built, at the complicated factions at play here. Jordan has obviously tackled a very ambitious project but the problem is that, while her elements when taken singularly are very intriguing, there are just too many of them all put together. At times, I felt like this book was one of those European tours, where you get off a bus, take a look at a monument, and then get back on the bus so that it can take you to the next monument. It felt like Hannah as moving through the world not so much because the plot required it but because Jordan wanted to highlight certain features of the society she created.
First of all, we have Chroming. This was such a great idea, in theory. I was really curious to find out what life would be like for those who had been Chromed. In fact, I could imagine an entire novel dealing solely with this aspect of the book. It's an excellent way of taking a hard look at the criminal justice system and asking some hard questions about what we really want out of it. Unfortunately, there is no real showing in this book of what the average Chrome goes through. We get bits and pieces of it here and there, as when Hannah is harassed at a gas station, but there is always some plot device swooping in to interrupt the scene. It's not that I was looking for lurid violence, just that I really wanted to examine the psychology of the Chromes and the dehumanizing effect their Chroming had on them. This was such a missed opportunity.
Next up, Hannah heads to a halfway house run by a couple of sadists--particularly the wife--who make Jane Eyre's Aunt Reed look compassionate. Yet this is another part of the book that just feels terribly underdeveloped. The couple running the center would have been an excellent lens for viewing how society functions within Jordan's world, as well as how some people would certainly chafe within its limitations. Instead, the halfway house feels like a plot device. Hannah and her fellow Chromes are treated in a viciously horrible manner, seemingly as a shorthand way of showing the reader how badly society is bound to mistreat them before Hannah and her new friend Kayla are sent off to be pretty much entirely isolated from society for the remainder of the novel. Once again, this is a setting that could have made up an entire novel, much like Offred's story being told through the lens of her servitude to her Commander's family.
Things just continue to go downhill from here, really. By having Hannah and Kayla be taken in by Jordan's equivalent of the Underground Railroad, the two characters become entirely detached from the reality of the world Jordan has so painstakingly created. They spend the bulk of the novel hiding out in one place or another, with their "stops" on the way to Canada just used as more plot devices to give the reader a glimpse of what the society is like. This section of the book really highlights just how disconnected the characters are from the setting, which I found to be a huge disappointment. I went into this novel thinking I'd see how Hannah functions in a world that openly scorns her, but there is really none of that here.
Still, Hannah does have an inner journey of sorts, as she struggles to reconcile her strictly fundamentalist Christian upbringing with her new sense of her world. I think her affair with Simone is meant to illustrate just how much Hannah is breaking away from her former beliefs, but I thought the whole episode felt so contrived. It was probably one of the most egregious plot devices of all. Once Hannah takes off to see Aiden, all of my suspension of disbelief was pretty much out the window. There are far too many coincidences and examples of deus ex machina in this book for me to be able to really buy into it.
As the ending drew nearer, I found myself worrying about the lack of resolution. I don't know why I was surprised to find that it was left wide open for a sequel, but it was. I take that back, I think I was surprised by the ending precisely because I didn't find this book compelling enough to want to pick up a second installment. At the end of the day, it's a pretty classic example of a fantastic concept that just isn't well executed.