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The Testaments: The Handmaid's Tale, Book 2

Book review by
Barbara Schultz, Common Sense Media
The Testaments: The Handmaid's Tale, Book 2 Book Poster Image
Brilliant, violent sequel is worthy of the orginal.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Like Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale, The Testaments makes readers think about women's rights and roles in society. In Gilead, the country where The Testaments takes place, women's and girls' independence and education are sacrificed in the name of "protecting" them and perpetuating the species.

Positive Messages

Women and girls have the power to change their lives, but they face real dangers and oppression.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Nicole is courageous, even while she faces loss, illness, and the threat of violence. Agnes also is brave in defying the doctrine in which she was raised. Lydia is pragmatic but willing to give her own life to expose the cruelty and corruption in her country.

Violence

The Testaments is full of the threat of violence as well as some actual violence.  People of Gilead may be hung, shot, or poisoned if they are considered disobedient or simply expendable. Citizens may also be subject to "Particicution," where an offender is literally torn apart by Handmaids. Specific violent events include a very bloody C-section; a car bombing; and a dream where numerous people are shot and killed. People talk about rape in the novel, and young women are molested by a dentist. One graphic description of a patient molested in the dentist's chair. The dentist also abused one of the women when she was a 4-year-old girl. 

Sex

Girls are taught never to reveal any parts of their bodies (not to swing in the park, for example) so as not to "entice" men or "inflame their urges." They are taught to fear men, and fear sex.

Language

The words "f--k" and "s--t" are used more than a dozen times each in the novel. "Piss" is used literally.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Characters talk about men drinking wine, and about homeless people being criminals who drink and deal and use drugs. Tranquilizers are used to subdue reluctant brides.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Margaret Atwood's The Testaments is the sequel to her bestselling dystopian novel The Handmaid's Talewhich was also adapted for the 1990 film and the Hulu television series of the same name. The Testaments picks up more than a decade after the end of The Handmaid's Tale, and answers some of the questions the reader was left with at the end of the original novel. Like The Handmaid's Tale, The Testaments mainly takes place in the fictional Republic of Gilead (formerly the United States of America), where roles for women and men are strictly prescribed, and divided by gender and caste. A girl's education is extremely limited, and her future is determined by the status of her parents. In the novel, women and girls wear garments that reflect their roles, and they are forbidden from "enticing" men. Anyone whose behavior breaks Gilead's strict rules of conduct may be shot, hung, or subject to a Particicution, in which the offender is literally torn apart. Violence includes a car bombing, a gorey Caesarian section, and the sexual molestation of a young woman by her dentist, which is graphically described. The threat of violence is always present for Atwood's characters, as girls are raised to fear being raped if they reveal any part of themselves to a man. Strong language is frequent ("f--k" and "s--t"), and there are mentions people drinking and dealing and using drugs, but none of those behaviors is presented graphically. The disturbing nature of The Testaments lies in the oppressive, corrupt world that Atwood creates.

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What's the story?

THE TESTAMENTS is author Margaret Atwood's sequel to her bestselling novel The Handmaid's Tale. It picks up more than a decade after The Handmaid's Tale ends, and takes readers back inside the Republic of Gilead, the oppressive society that the former United States of America has become. As in the first novel, men and women are divided by gender, function, and caste, and girls are given little education. Instead, they are raised to be obedient and to fear men; they are taught that their voluminous dresses and subdued behavior will protect them from being defiled. The men in charge are called Commanders, while women may serve as wives, Handmaids (who bear Commanders' children when wives can't), Marthas (who do housework), or chaste Aunts, who safeguard laws, records, and education. Events mainly concern the daughters of a former Handmaid and the roles they have to play in exposing the cruelty and corruption within Gilead. The girls long to be reunited with their biological mother, who fled Gilead in the first novel, though they don't know where she is or even if she's still alive. They're assisted by Mayday, a resistance group with members in Canada and inside Gilead. Like The Handmaid's Tale, The Testaments is a scathing indictment of societal forces that purport to protect people but actually oppress them. It encourages readers to question authority, and to value freedom over safety. 

Is it any good?

This chilling sequel about a dystopian society that oppresses women and girls is a page turner that's a worthy followup to the original novel. To readers who have read The Handmaid's Tale, or watched the film or award-winning Hulu TV series, the world of Gilead will be a known quantity, so The Testaments may not have the same shock value that its precursor did when it was new. However, this book may be even more engaging for teen readers, as two of the main characters are young adults. And it will make teens think about issues affecting women and gender roles. Author Margaret Atwood is brilliant at creating her complex, threatening, dystopian world, while still grounding her characters in the most essential values of family and freedom.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the lives of women in Gilead as portrayed in The Testaments. How are they protected and how are they threatened? How do the laws of Gilead work for and against women? 

  • Whom do you admire in the novel, and why? What character strengths do they show?

  • What do you think of the violence in The Testaments? Is it essential to the story or too much? How does reading violence on the page compare with seeing it on-screen? 

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