The Heart Goes Last

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Review: Margaret Atwood’s new dystopian novel The Heart Goes Last, while initially well-designed, fails to make a lasting impression.

The book follows Stan and Charmaine, a young couple living in the midst of an economic crash. Desperate for safety and normality, they sign up for the Positron Project, a clean, structured town where inhabitants live and labor in the gender-separated prison of Positron for a month and stay in the fifties-esque town of Consilience the next. Atwood manages to patch together a world like that of 1984 and The Stepford Wives mixed with her own developments. When both Stan and Charmaine become involved with their “Alternates,” the people who live in their home the months the couple is in prison, the story becomes more complicated.

The novel focuses on the relationship between Stan and Charmaine, which becomes increasingly tangled as the plot progresses. Atwood does a fantastic job adding depth to the couple by revealing their candid, often disturbing thoughts. Even more hauntingly, the dystopian world Atwood describes so well could easily fit into the next few years.

Though unsettling, the book is, at least, an enjoyable read. Stan’s prison side job as chicken pimp, a woman romantically attached to a teddy bear, and the growing absurdity of the main couple’s situation prompt a few smiles.

Atwood’s voice is also impressive. Some of her lines provoke deep thought while others aim to entertain, and she writes so smoothly there is never a clash between the two. She is even able to catch me off guard with a couple plot twists that stomp my initial predictions away.

In the last quarter of the book, though, the story seems to get out of Atwood’s hands. The stitches that pull the novel together become more obvious and start to fray. The plot gradually loses its realism, pieces don’t match up quite right, and secondary characters lose their depth. Worse yet, the dystopian clichés that Atwood initially appears to use jokingly become more serious and groan-worthy. Near the novel’s end, the story’s humor fades and takes on a more moralistic tone.

Atwood crams the last few chapters with events meant to drive the main themes home, but, though interesting, these events seem too much like an afterthought. The final chapters don’t drive the main themes home as much as they pull these themes to the surface. By the end, Atwood bares the story’s already thinly veiled meaning to readers as though they are incapable of jumping to interpretations themselves.

Still, the central meaning is designed better than similar stories, and it is an enjoyable read.

The problem with The Heart Goes Last is not a matter of enjoyment, though. The problem is that the heart of the novel goes before the Atwood is finished, but she keeps working at it anyway, hoping a frenzy of shocks will keep it alive until the end. In truth, the story flat-lines before Atwood is willing to wrap it up.

Recommendation: Fans of Atwood might be able to overlook these issues and appreciate the author’s intent. I think fans of The Stepford Wives and more mature fans of The Giver may also value this novel. It is a likable read for a general audience, but those unable to enjoy books featuring extramarital affairs, customizable prostitute robots, and “Big Brother” settlements should stay away.

Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this book–even if I didn’t review it until it was published.

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Modern Romance: A Modern Voice on an Age-Old Subject

Rating: 4/5 stars

Review: I have to preface this review by saying this book is written by Aziz Ansari, a standup comedian who played Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation (see video below).

If you don’t like Aziz, don’t read Modern Romance.

If you do like Aziz, we agree on something! After reading this, I’m pretty sure he actually is Tom Haverford. His voice came through loud and clear in each fact, graph, and strange stock photo caption. I heard his intonations and saw his hand gestures in every sentence.

Modern Romance is not a humor book; it’s a nonfiction book about how romance functions in society today–but it’s told in a humorous voice. I’m not a huge reader of non-fiction, meaning I only read it for school. Even then, it’s rare for me to read the whole book.

So the fact that I wanted to read this book was exciting in and of itself. The fact that I kept reading it until the end…speaks volumes. #bookpuns

I read this while camping (apologies to whomever checks it out of the library next and wonders why it smells like bonfire) and I would frequently laugh out loud, then explain the passage that had me cracking up. My mother knows most of the book now.

Here’s an example of one such passage:

Start doing even the slightest research into Japan and love, and you’ll quickly find sensational articles describing a full-blown crisis. According to demographers, journalists, and even the Japanese government, it’s a hot potato.

Sorry, I needed another word for “crisis,” and when I entered the word “crisis” into Thesaurus.com, it suggested “hot potato” as a synonym. I could not write this book without letting you know that Thesaurus.com lists “hot potato” as a synonym for “crisis.”

The book has a very casual, humorous tone, but Aziz and co-researcher Eric Klinenberg make some good points. They combine research from other books, interviews, online dating sites, a Reddit forum, and focus groups worldwide. Aziz focuses on the role of technology in romance today–particularly in the forms of texting and online dating. He also addresses how romance varies around the world and in cities versus small towns.

Aziz calls out younger generations on their reluctance to commit for fear of missing “something better.” He also draws attention to “straight white boy texts,” how waiting to respond to a text makes the recipient feel, the best dating environments, cheating and snooping via technology, etc. For each topic, Aziz uses research to back up his claim.

Honestly, this book helped me feel more comfortable about being single in today’s world. The average age for women to get married at is 28? I have plenty of time. Other people look up people they’re attracted to on social media, too? I’m not the only one! And wondering how long to wait before responding is a normal thing? Thank goodness!

Despite the humorous voice and reassuring facts of Modern Romance, it’s basically what I expected. It’s a wide variety of interesting information told in an interesting voice–and it lacks mind-blowing conclusions. I know technology has transformed the modern world; I know we’re more focused on finding a soul mate rather than a companion today; I know people don’t respond as humanely over text as they might face-to-face. I think this is pretty much common knowledge, though many of the statistics and studies used to support these conclusions were new and intriguing. Still, I feel like Modern Romance was on it’s way to something profound, but didn’t quite make it.

*A note to people who’ve seen Aziz’s standup: I watched the Netflix movie of Aziz at Madison Square Garden and several of his anecdotes and punchlines about relationships are repeated in this book. There are plenty of other good jokes and stories in the book, too, but I figured you’d want a heads up.

Recommendation: This book has  mature material and language–it’s written by a secular comedian, after all. I’d recommend it for college students and older. People born in the 1980s or 90s will probably appreciate the information and pop culture references most. If the subject sounds interesting and/or you enjoy Aziz’s work, definitely add this book to your to-read list.