I struggled between giving this book three or four stars. The temptation to give four stars comes from a fact few would dispute: Margaret Atwood is a great writer. Her work, at the sentence level, is astonishing; I am not sure I have ever read another author with her gift for description enhanced by similes: “Our breath made a white smoke; we blew it out in puffs, like trains…” “The ice was white at noon, light green in the twilight; the smaller pieces made a tinkling sound, like bells.” “The way the afternoon light came slantwise in through the window and fell so silently across the hardwood floor, the dust motes floating in it like mist.” “Her voice was what was called a whiskey voice — low, deep almost, with a rough, scraped overlay to it like a cat’s tongue…” If I searched harder I could find even better examples. Suffice it to say that the writing itself is something well worth experiencing and admiring.
The best way I can explain giving the book three stars instead of four is by noting that I started it on March 31 and didn’t finish until early August. Initially, the story just didn’t grab me. I could put the book down and not get back to it for days or even weeks. Atwood’s use of several layered narratives interspersed with occasional newspaper articles, although creative and building toward a strong payoff at the end, prevented me from caring too much about the story — at least until I was two-thirds through the book. I was intrigued by the writing and by one of the main narratives, but I felt frustrated when that narrative was interrupted by the others — especially a science-fiction story being recited by one of the book’s characters as a narrative-within-a-narrative. I finally started skimming through parts of that particular story, even though I realized that it was rife with symbolism and metaphor hinting at the over-arching themes in the book.
I did finish the book in a three-hour sitting on a Sunday afternoon when I finally decided I needed to get to the conclusion of all of this. I thought I had predicted almost everything by the time I was about half-way through the book, and I was accurate to an extent. Still, there was one major wrinkle I hadn’t expected that did give me that satisfying “ah!” jolt one gets at the end of a mystery (this book isn’t a mystery exactly, but it does have some elements of a mystery — a character dies at the beginning and part of the purpose of the narrative is to discover what happened to cause that death and whether or not it was a suicide). There was indeed, therefore, a payoff at the end — and that, coupled with the exquisite writing, makes this a book worth tackling if you like a literary read. It simply took me too long to get into the story, and I found the nested narratives too distracting. Toward the end, I really wondered if tighter editing might have helped.