The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
Release Date: September 29, 2015
Thought-provoking and just a little bit twisted, Margaret Atwood presents an American landscape after it has suffered from an economic collapse in The Heart Goes Last, from which Stan and Charmaine, the married and sometimes insufferable protagonists, must figure out how to survive.
With ex-robotics quality controller Stan unemployed, blonde and meek Charmaine making just enough money for donuts and instant coffee by bartending at a local dive after losing her job, and the two living out of their car, it’s hard to imagine a bright future for the couple.
Until one day, Charmaine sees a commercial for a new social experiment community that could be their salvation: Consilience, home of the Positron Project. This self-sustaining penitentiary is marketed as the solution to reforming an overwhelming number of criminals, while providing the innocent with comfortable living. Here in Consilience, stable employment and your very own home to live in can be a reality. The only catch is that the innocent must do time in prison every other month in exchange for living in this idealistic American suburbia. One month in, one month out. Citizens take turns being the prisoner and the guard, and learn to live in harmony.
But even if that may seem like it isn’t such a bad deal, something feels amiss. Stan knows someone must be profiting off of this, and his brother warned him that the only way out was in a box, feet first. Could Stan and Charmaine have made a mistake?
The novel originally began as a serial for Atwood, and knowing that explains the nature of the first half of the story, which feels like it drawls on and lingers. The suspense builds slowly, and you’re not quite sure when the axe is going to drop on the Positron system that, at first, actually does seem to be a good idea. But it will – as it always does.
When Stan’s part to play is finally made clear, the story becomes a roller coaster of questionable ongoings with body part exports, fuzzy blue teddy bears, the manufacturing of sex robots, and the true dark underbelly of the beast being revealed.
Stan’s got a sense of humour that makes you root for him to be more than the boring middle-aged man looking for more adventurous experiences in bed, but my feelings about Charmaine are harder to nail down. First impressions had me pegging her as a dull, plastic woman; too cheery given their circumstances, too naïve to survive. She is whiny and has the mentality of a 12-year-old girl throughout the book. She wails about others being mean, and you have to remind yourself that this is a woman in her 30’s tasked with possibly the most important job in the Positron Prison. Still, it’s that job and her ability to complete it every day that brings to light a side of her you never could have imagined she’d be capable of. Not to mention some of the eerily brutal thoughts that run through her head. Though thoroughly annoyed by her, there’s a chance I might even be impressed.
Overall, I enjoyed the concept of the plot, but would have been more invested in the characters and their wellbeing if I had more heart for them, but perhaps I just didn’t understand them. I also never felt there was a true sense of urgency. Was there ever any real imminent threat of the characters’ true motives being discovered? I don’t suppose we’ll ever know.
Still, fans of Margaret Atwood and her dystopian novels will want to add this to their personal libraries. The future painted here isn’t so unrealistic given how our society stands now, and may serve as a warning to us all. What sacrifices and mistakes would you make for the sake of freedom and happiness?