The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

After an economic disaster causes 50% unemployment, a married couple decides to take a chance on an unusual planned community rather than continue to live in their car and fight off roving bands of marauders.

I have not alwqys been a fan of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian science fiction, but with The Heart Goes Last she finally delivers a novel that’s one of her best ever, and that can hold its own with the best of the genre.

The dystopian premise is so delightfully sadistic. Imagine you can live in a perfect society, where you have a job you love and can buy whatever you want. The only catch? You have to spend every other month in prison. You’re promised that prison isn’t going to be as bad as real prison, but it still has to be prison and you’re going to have to do some distasteful jobs. But the trade-off is worth it–a home of your own in a safe community.

Atwood has always understood something about dystopia–that the borders are always permeable. There can never be a closed system. Nothing is hermetic; it all bleeds. That’s not the same as saying that some people in the perfect half of the dystopia are unhappy or dissatisfied–every entry in the genre says that. No, what Atwood gets is that the perfect world doesn’t ever even get to the illusion stage where you can be fooled that nothing bad will happen to you. Choosing the illusion means consciously opting in–even if you are in denial that you’ve opted in. It’s still a choice. Atwood never lets us forget that the price for happiness isn’t paid on our behalf (the way it is in Panem). It’s a price that we willingly pay.

And when it comes to the bad, Atwood really knows how to let things unfold logically and horrifically. It’s so bad, but, again, it’s a bad that you opt into. Nobody is a freedom fighter; everyone is compromised. She takes these petty, mediocre, cowardly people and makes them make hard choices and the plot moves so beautifully.

Most surprisingly, the book is a surprisingly moving love story. I wasn’t expecting it to feel as romantic as it did, particularly near the end, but it really got me.

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