The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood | Review

Posted August 15, 2016 by Tara in Review /// 0 Comments

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood | ReviewThe Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
Series: Positron #0.5
Published by Nan A. Talese on September 29th 2015
Genres: Dystopian
Pages: 308
Format: E-book
Source: ARC from Edelweiss

Living in their car, surviving on tips, Charmaine and Stan are in a desperate state. So, when they see an advertisement for Consilience, a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own, they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month – swapping their home for a prison cell. At first, all is well. But then, unknown to each other, Stan and Charmaine develop passionate obsessions with their ‘Alternates,’ the couple that occupy their house when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire begin to take over.

Margaret Atwood, we meet again.

The Heart Goes Last has such an interesting premise, and I was sooooo excited to dive into this book last spring. The idea of an idyllic community where people basically job-share life in prison and time in picket-fenced suburban homes with strangers seemed utterly fascinating to me. I mean, obviously this is going to be a case of something appearing perfect while actually being hella shady under the surface, but I buckled in to see where the ride would take me.

And, in fact, the first half of this novel delivers. Stan and Charmaine were quite interesting characters and their motivations for signing away their civil liberties seemed authentic. I love when dystopian worlds are realistically dystopian, and this world seemed to be one where some people were able to get by and life was pretty normal, while others (such as Stan and Charmaine) had to live out of their cars and resort to committing or fearing crimes. The remainder of the book, set inside the Consilience community and Positron Prison, was also quite fascinating in its set-up. The faux-1950s world of Consilience felt like something right out of the movie Pleasantville.

However, I can’t read without knowing the “WHY?” of things like this and I struggled for a long time with wondering why having people live in a prison every other month was profitable/desirable to those running this town. Like, I get why Stan and Charmaine would want to sign up for this program and, by the end of the novel, I get how corrupt this program is, but I still don’t quuuuuuuite get what the “official” story was on how this model benefited those in charge. How did they sell this to politicians?

All of that aside, the story itself follows the path of Charmaine as she gets caught up in sleeping with her Alternate, Max, the man who occupies her home while she’s in prison every other month and Stan as he gets caught in the weird web of Max’s wife, Jocelyn. These wacky antics lead us to a wacky world of sex robots (yes, that’s what’s in it for Positron) and lusting after teddy bears and Elvis impersonators and something called The Green Man group and…yeah. It’s safe to say this did not go where I expected at all. The entire novel was surprising and I’m still not sure what I read, or if I liked it, but I definitely didn’t love it.

The best part of this book is what Margaret Atwood does best: social commentary. Removing the actual wacky, meandering plot from what Atwood is trying to say reveals moments of reflection on love, liberty, sexual desires and material desires. I also thought there was some interesting material here on the prison-industrial complex and the entire justice system. But I’m not quite sure the book was good enough overall to justify additional reading to dwell in the complexities of this commentary.


The intended audience here must be the hipster millennials and their dreams of escaping the financial crisis and running towards simpler times. While the story is certainly funny and weird and layered, I would not recommend it for an Atwood newbie. There are certainly better Atwood novels out there: The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake being two that I’ve enjoyed, with The Blind Assassin next up on my list. Unfortunately (and I rarely say this about books) this is a novel that I would skip if I could go back in time and use my time to read something else. While I recognize that there is some literary merit here, this just wasn’t for me.


Tara is a PhD student studying education. Her dissertation will be on digital book communities as public pedagogy (ask her about it!), though she often takes a break from all of that to read books about oppressive governments and sassy teenagers. In a former life, she was a middle school teacher and middle school librarian. In her future life, she's a professor of YA lit. In her free time, she drinks a lot of coffee while planning her next grand adventure (there's always something).

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