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'The Testaments' Takes Us Back To Gilead For A Fast-Paced, Female-Centered Adventure

What do the men of Gilead do all day?

We learn very little about it in The Testaments. We hear of one who mostly shuts himself in his study, away from his family, to work all day. We learn that a high-ranking government official serially kills off each of his teenage wives once they get too old for his tastes, then seeks out new targets. We learn that another respected man is a pedophile who gropes young girls.

So. We know that Gilead men are at best nonentities, at worst monstrous. Beyond that, they are chilly, dull, uninterested in the women around them — to the point that they also seem kind of dim. Mostly, they lurk just outside the frame, threatening to swoop in at any moment to wreak havoc.

And that absence only emphasizes that the women of Gilead are more fascinating than ever. The Testaments, Margaret Atwood's follow-up to her classic novel The Handmaid's Tale, returns to that dystopic theocracy 15 years later via three protagonists: Agnes, a girl in Gilead who from a young age rejects marriage, though her parents intend to marry her to a powerful Commander. Daisy is a Canadian girl repulsed by Gilead, raised by strangely overprotective parents. And Aunt Lydia — yes, thatAunt Lydia — has near-godlike status as one of Gilead's founding Aunts and spends her days quietly collecting dirt on Commanders and fellow Aunts.

Telling much more about how the lives of Agnes, Daisy and Aunt Lydia do and don't intersect would be to spoil the fun of The Testaments. The book builds its social commentary on gender and power into a plot-driven page turner about these women's machinations as they deal with their stifling circumstances.

So. We know that Gilead men are at best nonentities, at worst monstrous. ... And that absence only emphasizes that the women of Gilead are more fascinating than ever.

"Fun" is a loose term here, of course. As with The Handmaid's Tale, The Testaments contains a lot of gut punches (as one may have gathered by now, what with all the murderous, pederastic men everywhere).

And a lot of the time, it's women administering these gut punches to each other. Despite the awful men everywhere, one of the main themes The Testaments explores is how women hurt one another — whether it's friend versus friend, Aunt versus student, or even mother versus daughter.

Keeping women from getting too close is by design, as Agnes tells us she learned in her early school days:

Aunt Vidala said that best friends led to whispering and plotting and keeping secrets, and plotting and secrets led to disobedience to God, and disobedience led to rebellion, and girls who were rebellious became women who were rebellious.

Perhaps it's just the sheltered, shuttered views we get from these three characters, but between the Handmaids, household help, Wives and Aunts, it seems that women are the overwhelming majority of Gilead's citizens. To keep them busy, one gleans, the ruling class simply divides them against each other — by class, social status, age.

(Race is notably absent from that list. Readers hoping to hear more about race in Gilead will be sorely disappointed — In The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood made it clear that the regime had mostly eliminated minorities. This angered many readers, but Testaments barely addresses the topic further.)

All of this is more visible by virtue of giving us three very different protagonists — which is maybe the smartest choice Atwood makes. This Gilead isn't — and can'tpossibly be — as fresh and mind-blowing as it was to readers in 1985, but the sheer novelty of this expanded view allows her world to continue to surprise us.

This Gilead, 15 years later, introduces us to the Aunts' training program, the Pearl Girls — young female missionaries sent abroad (wearing pearls, yes, but fake) — unsettling wedding customs, and even how the Aunt program got started. Which means learning the backstory of brutal Handmaid villain Aunt Lydia.

This Gilead isn't — and can't possibly be — as fresh and mind-blowing as it was to readers in 1985, but the sheer novelty of this expanded view allows her world to continue to surprise us.

Ah, Aunt Lydia. She's the antithesis of Handmaid's Offred as a protagonist. Offred was a sort of cipher — a beaten-down victim of the new regime who, aside from a little spark of rebellion, seemed like she could be any handmaiden.

The Testaments' Lydia, however, is by turns stone cold, crafty, grandiose ... and endless fun to spend time with.

Now, above all, she's plotting. Which means she is a different Lydia from Handmaid's one-dimensional villain. That one seemed to be a Gilead true believer. Without giving too much away, it turns out that this Lydia isn't quite the Gilead cheerleader we thought she was.

Even if this Lydia is a great narrator, there is also a gaping hole: Atwood never makes it totally clear why Aunt Lydia does what she does — when and how her problems with Gilead leadership developed. Even in Handmaid days, was she plotting against Commanders and other Aunts? We don't find out much about this.

The headstrong Daisy and sheltered Agnes pale in comparison with Lydia. Their voices are largely indistinguishable, and especially in Daisy's case, it becomes clear that Atwood hasn't quite mastered the art of speaking as a sulky teenage girl. At the root of this may be that Atwood remains an unsentimental writer. Shattering horror visits these two, yet somehow, it's never wrenching to read. The Testaments might punch you in the gut, but it doesn't quite pull at your heartstrings.

That's perhaps not entirely for the worse. Despite the misfortunes that visit her characters, Testaments is nowhere near as dark as Handmaid. This may just be because the world is bigger here: With more perspective and also characters simply moving around more, there's more room for light to come in.

It also means there's more of Gilead to sit and wonder about here. Indeed, think too hard about some points (No, seriously: What DO the men do all day? And isn't Aunt Lydia a little too conveniently amazing with hidden cameras? The Aunts have power and don't have to put up with forced marriage — why aren't more girls begging to be Aunts?), and the world Atwood weaves starts to fray at the edges.

Many readers will also spot the big reveals coming far before they arrive — how will these characters collide? It's no exaggeration to say you might see it a dozen chapters early.

If that's a weakness of the book, it manages to be a minor one. Testaments is more than 400 pages, but a fast and even thrilling more-than-400 pages. The joy of the book isn't in the plot twists but in seeing these women hammer away at the foundations of Gilead, and wondering how much it would take for the whole thing to crumble.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
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