Synopsis: Living in their car, surviving on tips, Charmaine and Stan are in a desperate state. So, when they see an advertisement for Consilience, a “social experiment” offering stable jobs and a home of their own, they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month–swapping their home for a prison cell. At first, all is well. But then, unknown to each other, Stan and Charmaine develop passionate obsessions with their “Alternates” the couple that occupy their house when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire begin to take over.
“If you do bad things for reasons you’ve been told are good, does it make you a bad person?”
This is the question posed by Margaret Atwood’s heroine near the end of The Heart Goes Last. The events that lead Charmaine to this question are at times, funny and tragic which should have made for a thought-provoking read, but alas, did not.
Like in many of her previous books, the world-building is phenomenal in Atwood’s latest offering. Consilience (combines “cons” and “resilience”) is a bizarre community created by the mysterious Positron company. In many ways it harkens back to the 1950s with the residents only being allowed to listen to music by crooners like Doris Day and Bing Crosby. Their tv is equally sanitized. The whole thing reminded me of “Pleasantville” crossed with “The Stepford Wives” with a few elements of “Westworld” and “Austin Powers” thrown in.
Contrasting with this supposedly idyllic setting are the residents who overall are obsessed with sex. It’s meant to be a black comedy but I have to admit I cringed at some of the scenes depicted, especially one which involved chickens which left me wishing I could scrub my brain. While I understood some of their preoccupation with this given their otherwise bland vanilla lives, at times it was over-the-top. Did I mention the chickens? Seriously, I think I may be scarred for life!
On the plus side there are some hysterical scenes involving Elvis impersonators which had me laughing out loud.
You’re probably wondering why anyone would chose this life, but you see, this is a dystopian story, and the outside world seems so much worse. The economy has tanked, leaving much of the population homeless, so to many, Consilience seems like paradise. So what if you have to give up a few personal freedoms. It’s better than living out of your car or on the streets, right? Well, it turns out that Positron has some sinister projects it’s working on secretly and they’ll do anything to protect them. Stan and Charmaine stumble upon the conspiracy and discover paradise may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
This leads me to the weakest part of the book. I truly couldn’t stand any of the characters. Not a single one. Charmaine is a fluffy blonde nitwit who whines, sighs and moans throughout the entire book. She’s also laughably naive to the point of ignorance and has absolutely no moral compass. Keeping in mind some of Atwood’s other books, I kept waiting for the big reveal that would show there was something substantive under the vapid shell, but was ultimately disappointed. Stan is a misogynist with a bad temper. That’s really all I can think of to say about him. He was completely one-dimensional and uninteresting. By the end of the story I couldn’t care less what happened to either of them. The secondary characters were equally boring and after putting my Kindle down to engage in other activities, I’d start reading again only to find I’d already forgotten most of the characters. It was extremely frustrating.
This is only the third book I’ve read by Atwood, (the other two being The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin) and while I loved them, I feel I can’t really compare The Heart Goes Last to the full body of her other work. I do however know of her reputation as being a prolific author who excels at creating bleak, yet mesmerizing dystopian worlds with compelling characters. Unfortunately with this book she relies on raunchy humor to get cheap laughs. When you combine that with unappealing characters the end result is a tangled mess in which any underlying message is completely lost. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t by far the worst book I’ve ever read. I think the main reason I’m so disappointed is because Atwood is a writer with such a stellar reputation. I expected so much more than an uninspiring story weighed down by frankly juvenile humor. I think if you’re a new reader of hers The Heart Goes Last isn’t going to make you immediately reach for another of her books, and I think that’s a shame.