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Book Review: Margaret Atwood's 'The Heart Goes Last'

The New York Times calls Margaret Atwood’s latest novel a “kinky dystopia.” Does that pique your interest? Current State book reviewer Scott Southard gives us his take on “The Heart Goes Last.”

The most important thing in books today is not a great twist, an original character, or even a groundbreaking style. It’s a name. If you are one of the lucky few wildly popular authors, you have a built in audience. And you’re able to make mistakes that would send less famous authors to the bargain bin. Sadly, Margaret Atwood flaunts this fact in her new novel "The Heart Goes Last."

Like most literary readers, I was excited when I saw Atwood’s name on the book. The Canadian author is one of the most important voices in literature around today. And The Heart Goes Last starts off with a great premise. The financial market has busted. The lower and middle classes are wiped out, leaving everything in the hands of the one percent. Stan and Charmaine are living out of their car. They struggle to find any work until they get the chance to move into a new community.  But there’s a catch. For half of the year they get a nice house and a nice job; for the other six months, they have to live in a prison, existing in a form of modern-day slavery. The possibilities are rich for another dystopian masterpiece at the start of the book, but then everything changes.

Almost out of the blue, "The Heart Goes Last" becomes a sexual thriller. Stan and Charmaine are both having affairs. Stan is sleeping with a woman named Jocelyn who is an important member of the community and is the wife of the person Charmaine is seeing. Stan’s affair isn’t consensual. He’s forced to take part in it, for fear of being removed from the facility or killed. That also sounds like a good book, but then the book shifts again. Now, we’re in a black comedy set in Las Vegas. Stan is hiding out and working as an Elvis impersonator. He is on a mission and his partner is a former prostitute who is sexually attracted to a teddy bear. Were you able to keep up with me?

One of the things Atwood is known for is her feminist stance. Her most famous novel, "The Handmaid’s Tale," was seen by readers as an argument for reproductive rights. But in this novel, her gender arguments are a lot less clear. Charmaine wants to be taken by a man, controlled sexually, while at the same time during the day she is administrating death in the prison. A strange connection that is never really resolved or explained. And then there is Jocelyn. Atwood seems to present her as a hero, yet she’s coercing Stan into sleeping with her. And don’t get me started on the woman with the teddy bear. This one is going to have literary scholars scratching their heads for decades to come.

Here is the thing: I don’t think this mess of a book would have even been published if Margaret Atwood's name wasn't on the manuscript. And I am very certain I would not have kept reading "The Heart Goes Last" if it was a less well-known author. Names have power in the market and on readers. This book, like all of her others, will find success while better books by unknowns disappear. Shakespeare may have said that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but sadly this smelly work is one best left in the garden, no matter which name is attached to it.

Scott Southard is the author of the new novel "Permanent Spring Showers" and "A Jane Austen Daydream". You can follow his writing via his blog "The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard" at sdsouthard.com.

Current State contributor Scott D. Southard is author of A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors, and Megan. Scott received his Master's degree in writing from the University of Southern California. More of his writing can be found at his blog, The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard.
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