The Testaments, the long-awaited sequel to Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, finally came out on September 10th, 2019. After a thirty-four year hiatus, Atwood continues the story of Gilead, a totalitarian theocracy with severe misogynistic principles. While The Handmaid’s Tale follows Offred, the sequel highlights three new narrators: Aunt Lydia, a main villain in the first installment, Agnes Jemima, daughter of a high ranking Commander, and Daisy, a teenager from Canada who we later learn is deeply connected to Gilead.
The book follows these narrators, showing how they intertwine. It begins with Aunt Lydia in Ardua Hall, the headquarters of the Aunts. Aunt Lydia is in the highest position of power a woman can have in Gilead, as she is in charge of all the Aunts and plays a big role in enforcing Gileadean laws and customs. However, her ultimate goal is to take Gilead down using the secrets and scandals she has access to. Agnes begins her story in the house of her father, Commander Kyle, and Daisy in Canada with her adopted parents. The three paths collide at Ardua Hall when Agnes applies to be an Aunt instead of facing the miserable life of a Wife, and when Daisy is sent to infiltrate the Gileadean government after the death of her parents. After learning that she is actually Baby Nicole, an object of Gileadean myth and propaganda used to fuel hate against other countries, Daisy joins a resistance group that vows to take Gilead down. After meeting in Ardua Hall, the three traverse the dangerous socio-political landscape of Gilead, aiming to destroy it from the inside out.
Personally, Aunt Lydia’s character development and narrative are the best parts of the book. In The Handmaid’s Tale, she’s portrayed solely as a villain, and we don’t see any of her motivation or internal dialog. In The Testaments, Atwood provides more information about her life before Gilead, and her intentions now that she is a part of it. I love highly intelligent and morally gray female characters, and Aunt Lydia is nothing if not these things. She says and does terrible things to the women in her society, including herself, in order to get ahead. But deep down, her intention has always been to have enough power to take the government down. I loved her jaded and witty narrative voice. Watching her partake in Gileadean customs from her own perspective is almost funny, as she thinks that they’re all so stupid.
While, generally speaking, I enjoyed The Testaments, there were some aspects that I didn’t like. Aunt Lydia and Daisy have distinct narrative voices that are engaging to read, but Agnes lacks this, and because of that, I did not get a sense of her personality. This may, however, have been a purposeful move in order to show the oppression that she has faced. I felt the same way about Offred’s personality in the first book, so maybe it is a pattern. I also strongly disliked the ending; it felt rushed and was way too happy and perfect for the tone of the book. While I was rooting for all three of the protagonists and wanted them to end up happy, this sort of ending is just as unsatisfying as a cliffhanger would have been.
Overall, The Testaments lived up to the first installment of the series, providing a broader view of Gilead and its inner workings. In an interview with Time Magazine, Atwood didn’t make any promises for a third book, but said that she “never says never.”