By Margaret Atwood, A continuation of the story of Gilead
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, was released a few days ago. The original novel was released in 1985.
I’m a Margaret Atwood fan. I have signed, first edition copies of a number of her books, and The Blind Assassin is one of my favorite books of all time. Even still, my first reaction to hearing about the publication of The Testaments was…skepticism. I was worried if this long-awaited follow-up would be any good, or if it was just a money grab because of the popularity of the Hulu adaptation.
Of course, the only sensible way to find out was to just read it, so that’s what I’ve been up to this week.
The Testaments continues the story of The Handmaid’s Tale, 15+ years later. However, instead of continuing Offred’s story, The Testaments follows Aunt Lydia’s story and offers two more perspectives that weren’t focused on in the first book. Agnes is an upper-class girl growing up in Gilead. Daisy is a young woman living in Canada as Gilead missionaries continuously drop by and protests against them rage on.
Through these stories, Atwood adds additional depth to Gilead and continues her dystopian narrative.
See The Testaments on Amazon.
I liked how this book was structured. Atwood manages to add in three different perspectives that come together to form a story that feels organic and adds enough to the original story to be worth reading.
As a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale and Atwood in general, I really enjoyed this. I found the story engaging, liked the characters and the ending.
In many ways, the book feels a little more lighthearted than the first installment. While this is of course still a dystopian novel, Aunt Lydia has a measure of power that gives her some agency, which makes the book feel less depressing and the situation less dire compared to Offred’s story. It also helps that there’s a character in Canada who is unindoctrinated and provides a contrast to the women in Gilead.
Overall, the storyline of The Testaments involves more pro-active plotting, scheming and a touch of adventure, as opposed to the dire desperation of Offred’s situation in The Handmaid’s Tale. I think some might object to the change in tone, but I liked it. I think The Handmaid’s Tale is a fantastic book that says something very important, but The Testaments is something slightly different but still a solid book.
I think people who are expecting a book that feels revolutionary in way that the first book was will be disappointed. Instead, this book is very much a sequel and continuation of the first story. But it’s one that’s worth reading if you liked the first book. If you didn’t like the first book for whatever reason, there’s probably not a lot of reason for you to read this book.
The Testaments vs. The Hulu Adaption
For those watching the Hulu show, The Testaments tells a separate story from what’s been seen in seasons 1-3 of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation so far.
However, Hulu has confirmed that it, along with MGM, will be adapting The Testaments. They haven’t stated whether their adaptation of The Testaments will be a spin-off series on Hulu, or if the story will be folded into later seasons of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
Read it or Skip it?
If you liked The Handmaid’s Tale, yes, you should read this book. The Testaments fleshes out the story of Gilead and is an engaging story.
It won’t feel revolutionary in the same way The Handmaid’s Tale is, mostly because it’s covering a lot of similar ground. The content and themes explored are similar, and there is a fair around of reviewing previous material to get the reader caught up. But it’s a good book and it adds to story of Gilead in ways I thought was interesting (sorry for the vagueness, but I’m trying not to give anything away.)
If you haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale, I would recommend reading that first. While this book does not focus on Offred, this is very much a sequel to the first book. It will make sense if you haven’t read the first book, but it will be more meaningful if you have read the prior one first.
See The Testaments on Amazon.
Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)
Part 1: Statue
(Ardua Hall) An Aunt is writing a secret manuscript at a library at Ardua Hall. Outside, there’s a statue of her holding the hand of a Handmaid. Behind them is a Pearl Girl, ready to set out on missionary work. As she writes, she knows that she is uncovering old, buried skeletons and that she would be denounced if this manuscript were discovered.
Part 2: Precious Flower
(Witness Testimony 369A) A girl, Agnes Jemima, describes life in a place called Gilead. It’s an Authoritarian state with strict rules. This girl wears a yellow, white and plum dress, which denotes that she is an upper-class young girl. Her mother is Tabitha and her father is Commander Kyle. Shunammite is her best friend.
The women here must stay covered up, and they are taught that men are smarter than women. Their instructors are called “Aunts”. Household help are “Marthas.” “Handmaids” are assigned to houses without children when wives are unable to bear children. Men that serve as guards are called “Angels.”
Tabitha is sick and passes away.
Part 3: Hymn
(Ardua Hall) The manuscript writer identifies herself as Aunt Lydia. She is old now, but is revered all over Gilead. She keeps a trove of private, incriminating documents on others in Gilead. She also recalls that she was once a family law judge.
She keeps the manuscript she is currently writing hidden between the covers of a book called Apologia Pro Vita Sua: A Defense of One’s Life.
Part 4: The Clothes Hound
(Witness Testimony 369B) Daisy is a young woman in Canada. Neil and Melanie are her parents, and they run a used clothing store called the Clothes Hound.
Missionaries from Gilead (the former United States) clad in white pearl necklaces often show up in pairs trying to evangelize. They bring brochures that advertise Gilead and demand the return of “Baby Nicole,” a child who was smuggled out of Gilead by a Handmaid. Nicole’s whereabouts are unknown, but she has become a rallying cry for both sides.
One day, there’s a planned protest against Gilead at school. Her parents don’t permit her to go even though they are firmly anti-Gilead, but she goes anyway. On the news, Daisy can be seen participating. A few days later there is a break-in at the store. The day after, a Pearl Girl is found dead.
On Daisy’s birthday, Melanie tells her she has something important to tell her later, but while she’s at school, her parents are murdered by a car bomb. Her parent’s friend, Ada, picks Daisy up and tells her the news.
Part 5: Van
(Ardua Hall) Lydia attends a meeting with Commander Judd where he tells her they’ve eliminated two people Neil and Melanie) who were part of the “Underground Femaleroad” against Gilead, referred to as “Mayday Operatives“. He suspects they had a contact in Gilead, though.
Later, Lydia thinks about the past and considers that she should have left the country when she had a chance, before it became Gilead. She recalls when the Constitution was suspended and women were no longer allowed to have money. Soon, she and her female colleagues were arrested by the provisional government led by the “Sons of Jacob“.
Part 6: Six for Dead
(Witness Testimony 369A) Months after Tabitha’s death, Agnes’s father remarries to a woman named Paula. Her father gives Paula the “magic ring” that belonged to Tabitha, although Tabitha had wanted the ring to go to Agnes. Soon, the household receives a Handmaid, Ofkyle (named after her father, Commander Kyle).
Meanwhile, Agnes is going through puberty, and she learns that Tabitha was not her original mother. And Commander Kyle isn’t her real father either. Instead, her original mother had tried to take her and escape Gilead. The Marthas tell her that her real mother is likely a Handmaid now.
Agnes go to the dentist for the first time alone, since her mother in the past demanded she be accompanied. By herself, the dentist Mr. Grove molests her. Agnes knows other girls have been punished for making accusations about things like this and says nothing.
Ofkyle becomes pregnant and has a difficult labor. They must choose between saving Ofkyle or the baby. The baby, Mark, is born healthy, but Ofkyle dies. Agnes notes that much later she will learn Ofkyle’s real name, Crystal.
Part 7: Stadium
(Ardua Hall) In present day, Lydia meets with the other three Aunts who are considered the “Founders” — Elizabeth, Helena and Vidala — to discuss combating the Maydayers.
In her manuscript, Lydia writes about the time after her arrest, being rounded up with other women who were lawyers and judges. They were divided up by profession, with the doctors rounded up in a group next to them. She also recalls being determined to survive.
Part 8: Carnarvon
(Witness Testimony 369B) Ada brings Daisy to SanctuCare, a Gilead refugee camp that her parents had been involved with, and then to a worn down apartment. The next day, Daisy is informed that Neil and Melanie weren’t her real parents. Her real parents are in Gilead, and she is Baby Nicole.
Part 9: Thank Tank
(Ardua Hall) Lydia meets with Commander Judd, whose wife is in poor health. Judd is old and has had a series of child brides. Each one mysteriously becomes ill and dies when he wants a new one.
Lydia learns that the dead Pearl Girl, Adrianna, was killed when she attacked the other Pearl Girl she was with, Sally. Sally has no idea why. Commander Judd also informs her that they’ve determined how Mayday has been communicating. They use Microdots, information printed as tiny dots, which require a microscope to be able to read. Lydia acts happy about his discovery, but actually is very apprehensive.
Later, Lydia continues her manuscript. In the days after her detention, there are daily executions. The executioners include other women. In her group, women are added or taken away for unknown reasons. One night, they come for Lydia. She’s questioned by Commander Judd who then has her placed in a “Thank Tank,” a dark isolation cell where she is beaten occasionally. In her mind, Lydia vows revenge.
Then, one day she is taken to a hotel. There, she’s able to bathe, and luxuriate in a terry cloth robe.
Part 10: Spring Green
(Witness Testimony 369A) Agnes is 13 now, old enough to be married off. An Aunt comes by to inspect her. he is fitted for new clothes and enrolled in a new school, Rubies Premarital Preparatory.
Shunammite and her friend Becka (Mr. Grove’s daughter) are at the new school too. Becky is terrified of marriage (it’s implied her father has been molesting her) and is depressed. In floral-arrangement class, she cuts her wrist with the scissors and is hopitalized.
Part 11: Sackcloth
(Ardua Hall) Lydia’s manuscript continues. At the hotel, Commander Judd shows up again. Having experienced both their torture and their largess, he wants to know if she plans to cooperate. Lydia says yes. To prove herself, she is instructed to perform one of the daily executions, with her friend Anita as one of the targets. She does, though years later, Judd tells Lydia that her rifle contained a blank.
Soon, Lydia meets Elizabeth, Helena and Vidala for the first time. Commander Judd tells them they are jointly to help organize the “female sphere” of their new society, including establishing laws, uniforms, slogans and so on. Vidala clearly wants to be seen as the “leader” of this group, but Lydia emerges as the clear leader.
In present day, Vidala shows up to alert Lydia about Elizabeth. Elizabeth has been leaving offerings at Lydia’s statue and is planning on denouncing Lydia for promoting idolatry. Lydia is surprised that Vidala would warn her, given their historically antagonistic relationship. Vidala says that she was wrong to doubt Lydia’s leadership in the past.
Part 12: Carpitz
(Witness Testimony 369B) Ada fills Nicole/Daisy in on more details about Gilead. Gilead is at war still with California, though Texas managed to fight Gilead to a standstill. The Canadian government is neutral, but fears invasion, so it’s possibly they will crack down on Mayday’s activities.
Mayday has a source inside Gilead who has been feeding them information, but they don’t know who it is. The same source claims to be compiling documents that could bring down Gilead. However, the link to their source was the Clothes Hound and now that link is broken.
The fallback plan is to have Nicole pretend to be converted by missionaries and go to Gilead to fetch the documents. The source demanded it specifically be Nicole, saying she had the best chances since she’s a national icon. Nicole reluctantly agrees to the plan, knowing there’s no guarantee it isn’t a trap.
They start training Nicole. She needs to learn how to pray, how to pretend to be converted and how to kill if needed. She takes on the name of Jade, and the source demands that she get a specific tattoo.
Part 13: Secateurs
(Ardua Hall) Present day. Lydia installs cameras near her statue so she can catch Elizabeth in the act. Instead, she discovers it’s Vidala who’s doing it, merely scheming to incriminate Elizabeth. Lydia is excited to tell Judd about her discovery and also that she’s close to bringing him Baby Nicole.
After, Lydia recalls an incident from 9 years ago when Becka attempted to commit suicide and threatened to keep trying unless they made her an Aunt (since Aunts don’t marry). Lydia had interviewed Becka, agreed to allow her to be an Aunt and told her to go select a new name.
Part 14: Ardua Hall
Agnes is presented with photos of three candidates for marriage, and the Aunts (who arrange the marriages) assure her that her opinion will be taken into consideration. Her options include Commander Judd and two younger men. Paula and Kyle prefer Judd (who is the most powerful of the three), and ultimately their engagement is announced.
Agnes meets Judd and is repulsed by him. Paula is eager to be done with the wedding to get Agnes out of the way. It’s scheduled for two weeks after her dress fitting.
As the day approaches, Agnes thinks about Becka and fantasizes about suicide or escape. Finally, Aunt Lydia visits her and informs her that Becka survived and is becoming an Aunt. Lydia has heard that perhaps Agnes is looking to do the same, though the idea must be seen as coming from Agnes and not Lydia.
Agnes makes her way to Ardua Hall where she announced her “higher calling” to become an Aunt. Despite Paula’s objection, Lydia convinces them and Kyla agrees to it. Becka preps Lydia for her interviews, and Lydia is accepted into the 6-month provisional period, where they will determine her fitness for the role. She’ll also learn to read, which other women in Gilead are strictly forbidden to do. Commander Judd marries Shunammite instead.
Part 15: Fox and Cart
(Ardua Hall) Lydia later learns about Becka being molested by Dr. Grove, and promises to herself that she’ll exact revenge against him. Lydia invites Elizabeth to tea. She tells her about Vidala scheming against her. Elizabeth is grateful for the warning. Lydia then tells her she needs a favor; she wants Elizabeth to bear false witness against someone.
Part 16: Pearl Girls
(Witness Testimony 369B) Nicole/Jade/Daisy is teamed up with Garth to go on a street corner and wait for the Pearl Girls to approach. It works, and Nicole soon goes with the Pearl Girls back to their condo while they arrange papers for her. She’s then brought to Gilead without a hitch.
Part 17: Perfect Teeth
(Ardua Hall) Lydia has Elizabeth serve as a witness, saying that Dr. Grove had tried to rape her. He’s to be executed. Afterwards, Lydia admits to Judd that Grove wasn’t a rapist, but a pedophile. But he was ruining girls for marriage, so Judd agrees that Lydia did the right thing.
Lydia then informs Grove that Baby Nicole is now back in Gilead.
Part 18: Reading Room
(Witness Testimony 369B) It has now been nine years since Agnes became Aunt Victoria. Becka now goes by Aunt Immortelle. Agnes thinks about how the generation of Aunts that came before them are hardened and went through things that her generation was shielded from. Nicole/Jade is assigned to live with Agnes and Becka.
Agnes thinks back to when she first became an Aunt and how Becka helped her get the lay of the land. As an Aunt, they have access to a lot of information that others don’t. She remembers her faith being shaken when she realizes all the things she was lied to about.
She also remembers how files started showing up in her quarters, all containing secrets about various people. They would show up and shortly be removed. She learned about how Paula had been sleeping with Commander Kyle even before Tabitha died, and how Paula murdered her ex-husband and blamed the Handmaid. Agnes wondered if Tabitha was actually murdered. Agnes also learns about Commander Judd’s tendency to kill off his wives.
Part 19: Study
(Ardua Hall) Lydia notes that Commander Judd’s wife is looking ill. She goes to speak with him and offers to have her treated, which he takes as a sign that Lydia will get rid of Shunammite for him. Lydia also asks him to prevent anyone from interrogating Nicole. He agrees.
Lydia notes that she is at a crossroads. She could hand over her manuscript to Nicole and hope that it helps to topple Gilead. She would be a traitor and live (or more likely, die) in infamy. Alternatively, she could take the easy route and hand over Nicole. In doing so, her legacy would be secure.
Part 20: Bloodlines
(Witness Testimony 369B + 369A) In Gilead, Nicole/”Jade” is weirded out by everything. She witnesses a Particicution, whereby someone is executed via Handmaids literally tearing them apart with their hands. Meanwhile, Becka and Agnes struggle with helping Nicole/”Jade” rein in her pagan beliefs.
without permission, Agnes sneaks a look at Gilead’s Bloodlines Genealogical Archives. The Aunts keep careful records of both the official and true records, to prevent inbreeding, but Agnes has not earned access to them yet. Agnes learns that her true parents are MayDay operatives. She then finds out her mother’s second child was Baby Nicole, and there is a “top secret” note that Baby Nicole is in Gilead. She takes two pages from the files, but later destroys them.
Nicole is brought to Aunt Lydia, who admits she is the source. She then inserts a microdot into Nicole’s tattoo. She then brings Becka and Agnes in as well. She tells them that Agnes and Nicole are half-sisters, and that Jade is Baby Nicole. Lydia then asks them to help Nicole return to Canada, knowing that they will be committing treachery against Gilead. They agree.
The plan is for Agnes to accompany Nicole to Canada. Meanwhile, Nicole has been assigned to a retreat, but Becka will be the one attending. Becka is disappointed she won’t be going with them.
Part 21: Fast and Thick
(Ardua Hall) Very soon, Vidala and Helena report to Lydia that Agnes has inspected her Bloodlines files without authorization. Lydia deals with them, but soon after Judd reveals that they’ve found microdots from Mayday in the Pearl Girls’ brochures. Lydia acts surprise.
In light of these events, Judd wants Lydia to produce Nicole as soon as possible to reinforce his control over the council. Furthermore, he wants to announce that he will be marrying Nicole, so Lydia needs to quickly get rid of his current wife, Shunammite.
Part 22: Heartstopper
(Witness Testimony 369B + 369A) Lydia visits Agnes and Nicole to tell them of Judd’s plan. They need to leave the next morning. Becka won’t have time to go to the retreat. Instead, she’ll need to simply hide for the next 48 hours. Becka decides to hide in the water cistern. Nicole will write a note saying she’s run off to be married, to prevent them from searching Ardua Hall when they come looking for her.
Agnes and Nicole depart the next morning, with Nicole punching Vidala who tried to stop them. Lydia had warned them that Vidala might notice something was off, and that Nicole would need to physically incapacitate her.
A man drops them off at a bus stop where they are given new, non-Gilead clothes Nicole feels something catch on her tattoo as she changes. From there, they take a bus to a river.
Part 23: Wall
(Ardua Hall) Vidala is found injured and taken to the hospital. Lydia goes to check on her, but sees that she is dying anyway and unable to speak, so lets things run their course.
Then, Helena goes to check on Nicole/Jade, who is nowhere to be found. She finds the note Nicole wrote about giving up being an Aunt to get married. Helena and Lydia agree that she needs to be reprimanded.
Part 24: The Nellie J. Banks
(Witness Testimony 369B + 369A) A boat arrives for them, though Nicole is sick and feverish at this point. In the middle of the night, the Captain has to transfer them to a small inflatable for the rest of their journey. They get in, but the motor doesn’t work. Nicole quickly explains to Agnes how to row.
Part 25: Wakeup
(Ardua Hall) In Gilead, Lydia’s plan is in motion, so she tries to ward off suspicions while she waits to see what happens. Becka is found dead in the cistern, and Vidala understands the sacrifice she made. Vidala briefly awakes groggily. Lydia tells Elizabeth that Vidala has accused Elizabeth of punching her. She implicitly suggests that Elizabeth provoke an asthmatic attack in Vidala as she sleeps.
Part 26: Landfall
(Witness Testimony 369B + 369A) Now in Canada, Nicole and Agnes row furiously and make it across the way. They are met by Ada and Garth and airlifted to the Refugee Medical Centre. It’s confirmed that Mayday has gotten the microdot from Nicole’s arm and the documents have been sent to the news.
Nicole is drifts in and out of consciousness and dreams. She hears Agnes say that their mother is here with them.
Part 27: Sendoff
(Ardua Hall) Once the news of the document trove hits the airwaves, Lydia knows it’s over for her. As they come for her, she overdoses on morphine.
(Epilogue) The Thirteenth Symposium
As a symposium, a group of academics discuss recent discoveries that have been made about the history of Gilead. Professor Pieixoto presents the findings. He first references a discovery from a few years back off a collection of tapes from “Offred”.
More recently, two more finds have surfaced. First, The Ardua Hall Holograph, a manuscript found hidden between the covers of another book, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (Lydia’s manuscript).
Secondly, two witness testimonies have been located as well for two half-sister (Agnes and Nicole), which tell an interesting story. The professor notes that it’s possible the author of the tapes “Offred” may be the mother of the two half-sisters, Agnes and Nicole, but more research is needed.
Finally, he note a statue and inscription they’ve come across, dedicated to someone named Becka. The inscription states that it was erected by Agnes and Nicole, their mother and two fathers, plus their children and grandchildren.See The Testaments on Amazon.