The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

heartI liked this novel by Margaret Atwood, although I don’t think it’s one of her best.  I had a hard time buying into the concept of the story, and she lost me a little when the story turned in a direction I wasn’t expecting.  Still, this is Margaret Atwood we’re talking about, and any new work by Atwood is a good thing.  I understand that this book actually comes from a series of novellas, so maybe that’s why it felt a little twisty-turny, unlike Atwood’s usual style.

This is a near-future dystopic novel with some science fiction elements.

Stan and Charmaine are a married couple who have fallen on desperate financial times.  They are living out of their car and trying to figure out how to get back on their feet, but their only option seems to be getting involved in Stan’s brother’s criminal enterprises.  They hear about an opportunity that is part rehabilitation, part social experiment.  A new town (Positron) is being created where residents will be assigned nice houses and jobs, if they are willing to live in prison every other month.  The idea is that the prison will create jobs, and the every-other-month scenario will double the resources because jobs and homes can be shared.  The idea also seems to be that by voluntarily giving up certain freedoms, the criminal element can be dealt with quickly and efficiently, leaving everyone in a happier environment.

They themselves, the incoming Positron Planners – they’re heroic!  They’ve chosen to risk themselves, to take a gamble on the brighter side of human nature, to chart unknown territories within the psyche.  They’re like the early pioneers, blazing a trail, clearing a way to the future: a future that will be more secure, more prosperous, and just all-round better because of them! Posterity will revere them.  That’s the spiel.  Stan has never heard so much bullshit in his life.  On the other hand, he sort of wants to believe it.

I had trouble with this concept because prison doesn’t save resources, it requires more of them.  Yes, jobs are created, but by imprisoning people every other month the community has to pay extra to house, feed, and guard them.  An entire second infrastructure has to be built.  The idea of a community where everyone is assigned a home and a job made sense to me, but the prison aspect did not.  There have to be better, more useful jobs to create than guarding people who don’t need to be guarded.

Still, it’s clear that cost is only one part of the equation, and the social experiment is the more important one.  I was fascinated by the idea of voluntary, half-time imprisonment, and what that would do to the people that entered into that agreement.  If I needed to, could I give up my freedom every other month?  What would life in prison be like?  How would being away from my spouse every other month impact my marriage?

This is where the book goes in a much different direction than I expected.  Atwood really doesn’t address these questions.  Life in this town, and even in prison, is portrayed as idyllic.  The characters want for nothing and have little to worry about.  Instead, Atwood explores the idea of temptation on this married couple who suddenly live in “utopia.”  Stan becomes obsessed with the woman who lives in his house while he and his wife are away, and Charmaine is tempted by the husband.  Both think their significant other is faithful — and dull – but neither is interested in addressing the issues in their marriage.

As a study of a marriage, I found this book really interesting. I liked Stan and could sympathize with his wife (at times), at least as she struggles with the good girl/bad girl dichotomy.  The men in this book seem to want their women really good or really bad but don’t quite get that we’re all some of both.  And I’ve always been fascinated by utopian/dystopian scenarios where happiness comes from eliminating freedom and individuality (think “Pleasantville”).

I enjoyed the first half of this book, but I found the second half to be a lot more plot-driven than character-driven.  Since I don’t want to tell you more about the plot, I can’t go into a lot of detail.  It would make an excellent movie but I wanted a little more introspection and character development than I got.  And I’m not sure I cared for the ending.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from NetGalley and publisher Doubleday Books in exchange for an honest review.  This book will be released on September 29, 2015

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