I have been fortunate enough to have met Margaret Atwood at two separate times, several years apart. The first time was after a reading at the Empire Theater in downtown San Antonio, where she signed my copy of The Handmaid's Tale. The second time was only a few weeks ago, after her talk at the 2015 Texas Book Festival in Austin, Texas, where I waited in line so she could sign my copy of her latest book and today's selection, The Heart Goes Last. Atwood has once again stuck with the theme of a dystopian society in the not so distant future, but clearly it is a theme that works for her as The Heart Goes Last was nominated for the 2015 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Science Fiction. The premise alone was enough for me to get curious, and getting it signed was just icing on the cake.
The Situation: Stan and Charmaine having been living in their car after both having lost their jobs, and then subsequently their house. The economy has completely crumbled, and now Stan and Charmaine are reduced to living the semi-nomadic life as they move from parking lot to parking lot during the night in an attempt to avoid being robbed, or worse. It is during her shift at a local bar that Charmaine sees an ad for the Positron Project in the town of Consilience. If Stan and Charmaine are excepted into the program, they are promised jobs, and their own house. And without being completely clear on everything that the project entails, they apply as a couple and are accepted.
The Problem: Like pretty much everything in life, the Positron Project is slowly revealed to be to good to be true. Stan and Charmaine are both given jobs, and a home, but the entrance into the project comes with a few unexpected surprises. They both knew that they would only be able to live in their new home every other month, as the project residences spend one month living a normal life, and the next month in the town's prisons, working at a different job. Meanwhile, a different couple would live in Stan and Charmaine's house, until it is time for the two couples to switch back again at the first of the next month. What the couple did not expect was for Charmaine to become involved with the husband of their alternate couple, starting a chain of events that would not only reveal the Positron Project for what it is, but also potentially put Stan's life in danger.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction book that explores a dystopian future in a time period not all that far ahead of our own. Stan and Charmaine are a couple deeply affected by a collapsed economy and looking for a way out of their new lifestyle. They serve as an example of what people are willing to agree to, without knowing all of the details, in order to escape an undesirable situation in exchange for some security. The book also looks at how easily swayed and highly suggestible some of us can be. Of the two, Charmaine is certainly the most easily swayed, possibly because of her unwillingness to face facts and look for the truth. And even though the Positron Project provides all of the comfort and security Stan and Charmaine could want, it does not necessarily make them happy, and certainly not with each other. Plus, the Positron Project appears to be another attempt at utopia gone wrong, as the people in power become unsatisfied with current production, always craving more profits and even more power.
My Verdict: I have only read two other Atwood books, out of the more than forty works she has published in her life, but I am no stranger to the theme of the dystopia. Atwood's idea is an intriguing one: a couple lives one month in a house, working normal jobs like normal people, and then spends the next month in jail while a different couple lives in the house. There are so many things that can be done with that. And while I do feel like Atwood absolutely went for it by not playing it safe and going for a somewhat futuristic almost spy adventure type story, I still cannot say that I cared for the direction she went in, and what she did with Stan and Charmaine. For starters, there are so many twists and turns that nothing feels certain, which may have been the point, but I was more confused and annoyed than I was curious. Also, even before they sign up for the Positron Project, Stan and Charmaine are not the most likeable characters, and the lack of communication between the two only fed their oncoming problems. I could not get myself to care enough about them to actually worry about whether or not they, or even their marriage, were going to survive this thing. In other words, the novel was a little bit of a letdown.
Favorite Moment: When Charmaine learns just how many of her Positron experiences were engineered by someone else.
Favorite Character: There are none righteous in this book. No, not even one. Even so, I pick Charmaine's friend Veronica, whose fate could have been much worse, but is still pretty bad. Fortunately for her, in the end, she doesn't know any better.
Recommended Reading: I choose Atwood's collection of stories, Stone Mattress, published just last year. These stories were more my speed, and she does that thing I love so much (when done well) where some of the characters overlap between stories.