The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood
Living in their car, surviving on tips, Charmaine and Stan are in a desperate state. So, when they see an advertisement for 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 suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month—swapping their home for a prison cell. At first, all is well. But then, unknown to each other, Stan and Charmaine develop passionate obsessions with their ‘Alternates,’ the couple that occupy their house when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire begin to take over.
Review: Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors. The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake are some of my favorite novels of all time. Atwood’s books are usually beautifully written and thought provoking. Usually. I’ve been struggling with some of her recent releases. Angel Catbird made me cringe so hard that I’m surprised my face isn’t stuck in a permanent cringe. Unfortunately, The Heart Goes Last also left me thinking WTF?
Fun fact: I actually put off reading this book for a strange reason. Two of the characters have the same names as my grandparents, and they have tons of graphic sex. The characters, I mean. Not my grandparents. I know nothing about my grandparents’ sex lives. I was worried that I’d picture my grandparents as the characters during the sex scenes, and that’s just . . . *shudder*
This review is only two paragraphs long, and it’s already awkward.
Okay. Moving on. The Heart Goes Last is a dystopia set in a world with rampant crime, joblessness, and homelessness. The main characters, Stan and Charmaine, are living in their car when Charmaine sees an advertisement for an experimental community. The people in the community would get everything they need: food, homes, money, hobbies. However, every other month, they’d have to give up their freedom and become “prisoners.” They’d live in a prison and do all the hard, unpleasant jobs it takes to keep a community running. Stan and Charmaine eagerly sign up for the experiment. When they get to the community, they notice that things are not as great as they seem from the outside. There are mysterious disappearances and a strange factory that makes lifelike celebrity sex robots. Stan and Charmaine get roped into the deadly job of uncovering the community’s secrets and smuggling them to the press.
“That was the original idea, but once you’ve got a controlled population with a wall around it and no oversight, you can do anything you want.” – The Heart Goes Last
I felt very hot-and-cold about this book. There are some plot points that I loved and really got into, and other plot points that just seem . . . silly.
The mystery is the best part of The Heart Goes Last. What is going on in this utopia, and who are Stan and Charmaine’s “Alternates”? The Alternates are the people who live in Stan and Charmaine’s house while they’re in prison. Stan and Charmaine aren’t supposed to have any contact with the Alternates, but they start learning things about them based on what they leave in the house. Stan and Charmaine also have their own secret ideas (and sexual fantasies) about the Alternates’ identities. I enjoyed watching all the pieces come together.
Like all of Margaret Atwood’s books, this one raises some interesting questions. I don’t want to give away spoilers, but would you rather be free or happy? The characters are forced to make some tough choices about that.
“Oblivion is increasingly attractive to the young, and even to the middle-aged, since why retain your brain when no amount of thinking can even begin to solve the problem?” – The Heart Goes Last“If you do bad things for reasons you’ve been told are good, does it make you a bad person?” – The Heart Goes Last
My biggest problem with this book is that it doesn’t feel like a Margaret Atwood novel to me. I love her work because she’s phenomenal at developing characters, but the characters in The Heart Goes Last are shallow. I never felt like I understood their motives. They mostly seem like pawns that the author is forcing through a silly sequence of events.
That brings me to the next issue: The characters come up with this bizarre, convoluted plan to smuggle information out of the community, and it all seems very unnecessary. Why did the plan have to be so silly? Why did we need all those details about sex robots and gay Elvis impersonators? It feels like there’s a metafictional joke somewhere in here that I didn’t understand. Maybe Margaret Atwood is just much smarter than me. My brain can’t keep up with her.
I didn’t hate this book. There are some aspects of it that I appreciate. I’ll continue to read Margaret Atwood’s work. But, I don’t think this is one of Atwood’s stronger novels.