Updike's adventurous 18th novel—a dystopian romance, set in the year 2020—contrasts intriguingly with last year's generational saga In the Beauty of the Lilies. In a privileged north-of-Boston neighborhood that recalls the hotbeds, so to speak, of such earlier novels as Couples and The Witches of Eastwick, narrator Ben Turnbull, a 66-year-old former investment counselor, lives in placid retirement with his younger second wife Gloria and spends his waning energies in occasional quasi-business trips to his old Boston office, golf with his male buddies, visits to and from his five children and ten grandchildren, and (over) heated dalliances with Deirdre, his favorite young whore, who makes house calls whenever Gloria's away. "The universe is collapsing," Ben opines—and indeed, in his insular postlapsarian little world, citizens pay protection money to competing mobsters (and, later, to Federal Express) in lieu of taxes, and Massachusetts "scrip" has replaced the once almighty dollar following a nuclear war the US lost to China. It's a clever premise, and an effective background for the somewhat attenuated story of Ben's adjustment to the changes in his world and in himself. And the novel contains some of Updike's funniest writing in years (Ben's precariously maintained détente with his energetic scold of a wife is most amusingly described), and his fluid, flexible prose and descriptive precision remain unimpaired. But the story wanders. Ben's many ruminations (science is his avocation), though wonderfully done, are nevertheless digressions that interrupt such far more interesting matters as the fate of a marauding doe that grazes among Gloria's flowers and shrubs, and Ben's avuncular relationship with three teenage "squatters" who appropriate his property and blithely shake him down. And the emphasis on Ben's relentless sex drive—metaphor for the life force or not—becomes, simply, tiresome. Never less than readable, but not nearly the book it might have been. Minor Updike.

Pub Date: Oct. 10, 1997

ISBN: 0-375-40006-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1997

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.


The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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