In early 2017, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale saw a renewed period of popularity. The year before, Hulu had announced that it would be adapting the 32-year-old dystopian novel for the screen, inspiring many readers to either return to the work or read it for the first time — an experience that became significantly more distressing after Donald Trump was elected president, lending the novel’s themes around reproductive freedom and patriarchal oppression new relevance. (The novel’s second period of popularity also inspired some shockingly ill-conceived Handmaid’s-branded products.)
When Atwood announced last November that she would be releasing a sequel called The Testaments, fans old and new celebrated, albeit cautiously. “Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings will be the inspiration for this book,” Atwood wrote in a social-media video. This book, she said explicitly, would be “inspired by the world we’ve been living in.”
To say that The Testaments is highly anticipated is an understatement: One reviewer called it “one of the most anticipated sequels of the modern age.” Furthermore, despite being under strict embargo, it has already been nominated for major literary prizes, and is scheduled to be adapted for the screen.
Below, here’s everything we know about the book so far: the plot, the critical response so far, and the upcoming TV adaptation.
It’s set 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale.
The Handmaid’s Tale was set in the totalitarian Republic of Gilead, where all women are subjugated to men; the lowest-ranking women are forced to become handmaidens, who solely exist to procreate. Atwood left the first novel on a cliffhanger, with handmaiden Offred getting into a mysterious van that would either liberate her or take her to meet her death. In the sequel, which is set 15 years past where Handmaid’s Tale left off, Offred doesn’t personally figure into the plot. Her legacy, however, looms.
Gilead is still an oppressive patriarchal republic, and the main narrative of the sequel is centered on a mole who is “working with the Mayday resistance to help bring down the evil empire,” per the New York Times’s review of the book. But in lieu of one narrator, this book is told from the perspective of three women, whose identities are revealed to be Offred’s two daughters, as well as the infamous Aunt Lydia, the brutal antagonist who instructs women before they become handmaids. (While Hulu has characterized Aunt Lydia as an unforgiving villain in their adaptation, multiple reviews of the book say that Atwood humanizes her, treating her as a more “complex” character.)
The book is under strict embargo, though early reviews are coming out.
In the past week alone, publications including the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, and the Washington Post have published early reviews of The Testaments. Just today, the Guardian published the first excerpt of the book, which leads with an incredibly dark opening line: “Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.” (The narrator later refers to herself as “an Aunt,” so this excerpt is presumably from one of Aunt Lydia’s sections.)
It’s already up for literary awards …
It is among five other titles shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize, and is on the long list for Canada’s 2019 Giller Prize.
… and will be adapted for the screen.
In an exclusive interview with Time, Hulu and MGM announced that they are working to develop the sequel for the screen. As of now, though, Time reports that it is unclear “whether it will be folded into the existing Hulu series or developed as a separate work.”
The response has been largely positive.
Overall, the critical reception has been mostly positive: Entertainment Weekly, which gave the sequel a B+ rating, praised Atwood’s prose as “lean, mean, and charged,” and her pacing as “flawless.” Furthermore, Michiko Kakutani called the book “compelling” in her review for the Times, and the Post’s Ron Charles wrote that it’s a “brisk thriller.”
But the lack of substantive criticism — something expected in even the most positive of reviews — has been slightly peculiar. Though Kakutani does offer a critique, writing that the plot is “a contrived and heavily stage-managed premise” (though “in a Dickensian sort of way with coincidences that reverberate with philosophical significance”), it’s difficult to infer whether she believes the book to be worthy of the immense amount of attention it has already received.
Praise be, we hope!