It’s definitely not what I was expecting. It's a breezy thriller, I'd say. The primary bad guy, Commander Judd, as physically described by Atwood resembles Santa Claus, if Santa took a really bad turn down the road of totalitarian patriarchy (don’t do it, Santa!). An image of a demented Santa, for me, brings an air of the ridiculous to the proceedings. One of Judd’s characteristics is that he’s only interested in teenage girls: marry one, go a few years, kill her, repeat. Horrible but treated with a touch of the slapstick by Atwood (“rat poison? It’s so easily detectable,” the central character and antihero Aunt Lydia muses. Yes, disappointingly sloppy, Santa).
On the positive side, it’s well paced, and kept me turning the pages. It flew by for being a 400 page novel in the hands of a slow reader. Aunt Lydia is the sort of Machiavellian character it’s enjoyable to encounter in fiction (if only we could keep them all there).
I appreciated how it agreed with Nabokov’s take on totalitarianism: that it is marked more by the ineptness and buffoonery of those in power than by any impressive calculating evil.
I get the sense, reinforced by Atwood’s acknowledgements here, this was just written for the entertainment of people who have enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale in its written and televised formats, and not so much because it was a novel that was demanding to be written, so to speak. It exists because there was an eager market for it that didn’t call for it to be very “literary”. Which is fine of course. But that it was a co-winner of the Booker Prize is much less understandable.