Margaret Atwood, the legend. I’ve been slowly working my way through her backlist of titles over the past few years, and this, her latest novel, was next on my list.
I’m terrible at writing synopses, so I think I’ll just do the easy thing and copy it from somewhere else!!
Stan and Charmaine are a married couple trying to stay afloat in the midst of economic and social collapse. Living in their car, surviving on tips from Charmaine’s job at a dive bar, they’re increasingly vulnerable to roving gangs and in a rather desperate state. So when they see an advertisement for the Positron Project in the town of Consilience – a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own – they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for this suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month, swapping their home for a prison cell.
At first, all is well. But slowly, unknown to the other, Stan and Charmaine develop a passionate obsession with their counterparts, the couple that occupy their home when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire take over, and Positron looks less like a prayer answered and more like a chilling prophecy fulfilled.
The first third of this book is pure, tense Atwood. With the world collapsing around them, you get that dystopian chill and the tension between these two characters. The prison/town setting has that too-perfect feeling that provides just the right level of off-kilter to make you wonder – and worry – about what comes next.
Stan and Charmaine are believable; their life, where they are basically trapped together in the tiny confines of their car, is really rough and I instantly felt connected and caught up in their story, their struggle. They just seemed like two regular people who wound up on the wrong side of a bad turn and are trying to make the best of it. Although you already know things aren’t going to go smoothly for them, you want them to have the utopian experience, to come through the other side of a tragic life.
And then, quite frankly, it gets too flipping weird.
Perhaps my expectations of what the story was going to be about threw me a bit, but Atwood ultimately takes it in such a bizarre, sex-fuelled tangent, that I lost all comprehension of what on earth was going on. More importantly, I lost what the point of it all was. Looking over other reviews and thinking about it somewhat afterwards, the idea that this is a ‘be careful what you wish for’ narrative both rings true and feels inadequate. Atwood revels in satire and pointed commentary on social problems, so I feel like she was trying to get to something a lot more poignant than just the ills of wish-fulfilment. There are the elements of control and power – how that dynamic shifts and adapts depending on who it is that has the power and the control, and why. Gender dynamics are also in play, and the loss of liberty for women’s bodies (although, she does mention several times that it is not just women affected by what is happening behind the scenes, so this falls a little flat in the end).
And lets not get into the whole Elvis/Marilyn Monroe thing that takes up a good chunk of the last third of the book. That was where it got truly weird and I, unfortunately, lost a lot of interest at that point. I wanted to finish the book so I could finish the book. Charmaine became this very odd caricature of herself (in fact, the majority of the characters do), and Stan became thoroughly unlikeable as he tried to work his way through this ridiculous secret mission he’s supposed to be on.
I think my issue with it, at its core, is that it stopped feeling real for me. The beauty of the first part of the book, and for many of Atwood’s works, is the grounding in the real, the possibility of what could happen as a societal whole as well as at the personal level. And though there are threads of that running through the book – as mentioned above – it never really feels like something true or honest. The power that could have come through is lost amongst the bonkers (and the bonking…).
As you can probably tell from this, The Heart Goes Last is certainly not going to be one of my favourite Atwood works, and I would strong recommend giving this a miss if you are new to her work. I think I’ll head back to one of her classics next – either Oryx and Crake or Alias Grace – and see how I get on there!
Are you an Atwood fan? Have I completely missed the point of this book? Let me know down below!