The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood (New York: Nan A. Talese, 2015. 320 pp)
Born in Ottawa in the autumn of 1939, Margaret Atwood grew up in Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She attained her B.A. from Victoria College, University of Toronto and her M.A. from Radcliffe College. Atwood has written more than 50 works of poetry, children’s fiction, fiction, and non-fiction. While she is most known for her many novels, her book, Blind Assassin, received highest acclaim winning the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000. Currently, she lives with Graeme Gibson in Toronto.
Often when considering the experiences of others, you’ll hear the suggestion of “stepping into another’s shoes.” Such a position provides ample value as empathy emerges from the consideration of a new perspective. While a valuable exercise, it’s difficult to believe in its validity.
How can anyone, truthfully, understand the experiences of others? I often think of those less fortunate. I could engage in an Invisible Children-style all-nighter, but it would be accomplished within the context of going back to a warm bed shortly thereafter.
So, it’s difficult to diagnose how far someone would go when the prospects of the next dollar in the pocket twirl uncertainly in the wind.
The Heart Goes Last illustrates the plight of 2 down-on-their-luck young adults, Stan and Charmaine. Newly married and suffering economic hardship in a near-future recession. The backseat of their car replaces decent jobs and housing.
“Then everything went ratshit. Overnight, it felt like. Not just in his own personal life: the whole card castle, the whole system fell to pieces, trillions of dollars wiped off the balance sheets like fog off a window. There were hordes of two-bit experts on TV pretending to explain why it had happened—demographics, loss of confidence, gigantic Ponzi schemes—but that was all guesswork bullshit. Someone had lied, someone had cheated, someone had shorted the market, someone had inflated the currency. Not enough jobs, too many people. Or not enough jobs for middle-of-the-road people like Stan and Charmaine. The northeast, which was where they were, was the hardest hit” (7).
Outside of a life of crime, Stan and Charmaine have no prospects until Charmaine sees an advertisement for a better future, an innovative approach to economic recovery, a free home and a productive job. But, there’s a catch. For every even month living in this too-good-to-be-true home and working in the local town, there’s an odd month spent in the town jail, working separate jobs separated. During this time, an alternate couple lives in your home and “replaces” you.
Freedom Has a Price
In this community, the people you live with in the town are the people you jail with. You are not allowed to know about your alternates and there’s a lifetime contract. You in?
“The first day’s workshop is mostly PowerPoints. It begins with videos of the town of Consilience, with happy people at work in it, doing ordinary jobs: butcher, baker, plumber, scooter repair, and so on. Then there are videos of the Positron Prison inside Consilience, with happy people at work in it as well, each one of them wearing an orange boiler suit. Stan only half watches: he already knows they’re going to sign the commitment papers tomorrow, because Charmaine has her heart set on it. Despite the slightly uneasy feeling he’s had—they’ve both had, because Charmaine said at breakfast, with lattes and real grapefruit, ‘Honey, are you sure?’ —the bath towels clinched the deal” (34).
For Stan and Charmaine, circumstances couldn’t be better in this town/jail project named Consilience/Positron. Until, discovery of their alternates piques sexual interest in both characters for distinct reasons.
Will this discovery threaten erasure from the community and become a threat to their lives, or is there a way to leverage this experience to bring down the house of cards?
A Story Manqué
Atwood draws from her core competencies in The Heart Goes Last illustrating a seemingly realistic solution to poverty, even if it expands into frightening categories.
Unfortunately, The Heart Goes Last represents a story manqué. Atwood manufactures a compelling idea, but the characters seem to play second fiddle to the concept. The Heart Goes Last is the kind of novel that needed another 200 pages to cultivate character, or become shortened to a novella. As it stands, the book feels somewhat in between the two.
I’ll never know what it would be like to be truly destitute and I’m not sure if I’d ever understand if such status would push me toward the ideas present in The Heart Goes Last. Nevertheless, Atwood pens an entertaining read, even if it feels a little lacking in depth.
Verdict: 3 out of 5