Book Review: The Heart Goes Last

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The past is so much safer, because whatever’s in it has already happened. It can’t be changed; so, in a way, there’s nothing to dread.

The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

We expect more from the people we love. It’s simply just the way it is. We have certain expectations about their behaviours and are disappointed when those expectations aren’t fulfilled. The same goes for authors. When I truly love an author’s work and admire it for both its style and content, I tend to aggressively pursue as much of their work as possible. (I’ve now read all but two of Murakami’s novels, although I guess I could continue onto his short stories and nonfiction).

I was first introduced to Margaret Atwood in high school with Oryx and Crake. After high school, I finished the MaddAddam trilogy (The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam), as well as The Handmaid’s Tale, which a friend recommended to me. I found what Atwood calls her “speculative fiction” fascinating. The dystopias depicted in those works are shocking but believable, with the world-building so brilliantly and thoughtfully done. The characters are, despite their faults, largely likeable and interesting.

So, I expected the same from The Heart Goes Last, which begins with a couple, Charmaine and Stan, living out of their car after an economic and social collapse. They are offered the chance to live in an experimental community called the Positron Project where they are provided with a clean home, food, and employment, as long as half their time is spent as ordinary citizens and the other half is spent as inmates. While Stan and Charmaine are inmates, another couple (their “Alternates”) occupy their home, and vice-versa.  It’s an interesting premise, to be sure, and I found the first few chapters engrossing. The depiction of Charmaine and Stan’s poverty as they struggle to find work is raw, real, and relatable.

However…there were a few problems I had with this novel. I simply couldn’t suspend disbelief. The plot was simply full of too many coincidences and deus ex machinas, with characters miraculously reappearing to solve problems. The premise of Positron itself I found underwhelming and not particularly believable, especially compared to the ones found in Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale. For the most part, the characters were bland, insipid, and one-note. Charmaine was irritatingly simple, while Stan’s thinly veiled misogyny wasn’t coupled with enough redeeming features for me to actually enjoy his character.

My favorite aspect of the novel was its dissection of consent, especially coupled with the available technologies. Early in the novel, Charmaine considers prostitution as a way to support herself and Stan, but quickly rejects the idea due to Stan’s disapproval. The possibility of rape, for both Stan and Charmaine, is constantly on their minds as well. As the plot advances, the reader is exposed to some of the seedier inner workings of Positron, including sexbots that can be exactly modelled after another person without their knowledge, elaborate celebrity impersonator escort services, and the practice of modifying people’s brains to ensure their undying devotion to their partner. I loved all the different ways the novel explored sexuality, distorting nearly every sexual relationship in the novel with some sort of conspiracy or technology. Still, as much as I’m interested in the notion of consent and technology, I found the novel’s take on it a bit heavy-handed and repetitive.

YES OR NO?: I didn’t think the novel was completely unenjoyable, but simply not up to par. If I were to recommend an Atwood work, it would definitely be Oryx and Crake or The Handmaid’s Tale. This work is much lighter and often more humorous, I didn’t find enough of it engaging to label it a necessary read.

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