I have a shameful confession: The Heart Goes Last is the first novel by Margaret Atwood I’ve ever read. The absence of her work in my reading history is one of my biggest gaps.
I wish I’d read some of her other work first.
The Heart Goes Last isn’t anything much beyond fine. It’s not great and it’s not a testament to her prestige. If it weren’t for Ms. Atwood’s larger reputation, this novel wouldn’t impel me to read anything else by her.
Technically, the work is of very high quality. Ms. Atwood’s style is assured, poetic, evocative. I particularly appreciate how certain phrases repeat and mutate their meaning throughout (the title of the book being one of those phrases). The language is beautiful. The pacing is well-handled and her character development is solid. Her world-building is detailed without being ostentatious. She’s clearly a master of her craft.
I have two fundamental issues with The Heart Goes Last:
1) I can’t accept the central premise of the story. The concept of the “Positron Project” and town of Consilience is too strained for me to buy into it.
Keep in mind: I grew up reading hard scifi, starting way back in 3rd grade. I have a lifetime of practice immersing myself in plots, situations, and characters that would strain many people past the breaking point of belief. Accepting outlandish and alien premises is something I’m very good at. I’m a master of suspending disbelief.
The world Ms. Atwood creates in The Heart Goes Last is supposed to be a logical outcome of our real-world, present day circumstances. We-the-readers are supposed to find this world familiar enough to be disconcerting.
I don’t agree that it’s a logical outcome of present circumstances. I can’t believe that our world would go that way—I can believe a whole lot worse futures than this one, but I just can’t see anyone thinking the Positron Project would be a viable solution to social problems. It’s a belabored premise.
2) I don’t care about any of the characters.
I’m not sure why I don’t care about them. As I said, they’re all well-developed, they’re dimensional and faceted and human. Ms. Atwood’s characters are far more believable than the premise of her story.
It’s not the fact that none of them are very likeable. I’ve stated before that I don’t need to like a character in order to care about what happens to them.
It’s not an issue of the characters being uninteresting—they’re normal people thrown into extraordinary circumstances. There’s intrinsic interest in watching how they handle it, how they react and behave.
I get the sense that Ms. Atwood herself doesn’t care that much about these characters. That they exist less for their own sakes and more to serve as lenses through which to explore the world of the story. Ultimately, they’re perspectives more than people, inhabitants of the premise more than fully empowered actors.
Whatever the case, I don’t care that much about them.
Thus, a premise I can’t accept and characters I don’t care about. That doesn’t leave much for me to enjoy, beyond the elegance of Ms. Atwood’s writing style (which, it should be stated, is highly rewarding).
I still plan to read her more renowned novels and fill in this gap in my reading history. I fully expect her other work to impress me better.