I read this many years ago and gave it 4 stars. I've just reread it for my Goodreads bookgroup's February read and upgraded it to 5 stars.
A wonderful hybrid: a book that is eminently readable, but packed with fascinating and thought-provoking ideas and symbolism.
It's set in the near future in a dystopian totalitarian theocratic state where pollution has rendered many infertile, so there has been a backlash against permissiveness and women are subjugated to the point where they are not even allowed to read (even shop signs are just icons).
Offred tells the story of how she became a handmaid, assigned to one of the elite, purely for breeding purposes.
**** SLIGHT SPOLIERS BELOW ****
TRUER THAN YOU WANT TO THINK
All the many and varied restrictions, practices, divisions and penalties imposed by the regime have really been applied somewhere in the world, albeit not all at the same time and place. One of the things that stops the book being gloomy is the resilience of the human spirit: there is a resistance movement among the lower classes and even amongst the elite, illicit things go on. The fear of being caught creates a good sense of tension.
FAITH and RITUAL
Faith and ritual are important, both to the regime as a means of control and to individuals as a way of making life bearable.
The symbolism is rich, especially tulips and the colour red. The handmaids' sole purpose is procreation, their cycles are closely monitored, everything they wear is red and other important red items (such as a path) are pointed out. Whilst the shape of tulip flowers clearly echoes genitalia, they are also likened to a wound and teeth, and they and other flowers are described in different ways to indicated fertility or sterility. Serena Joy's knitting is a compulsive form of reproduction with sinister echoes of Dickens' Madame Defarge in "A Tale of Two Cities".
The big questions are around ownership of oneself and one's body.
The state is patriarchal, but an army of matriarchal "aunts" enforce rituals and build a hive mentality to support each other and hence the regime. Are the handmaids prostitutes (is Nick too)? They sell their bodies (though not for cash), but the aim is procreation, not anyone's pleasure (the wife is always present), and it is for the survival of them as individuals and of the human race.
Do the ends justify the means, and should the handmaids accept some responsibility for going along with it? And if "context is all", what is truth? I suspect you could read this several times and never come up with exactly the same answer.
Rereading "Fahrenheit 451" is a good follow-on: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/23324785...