Book Review: The Heart Goes Last

My heart fell when I read the ending. It was over. The wild ride that I had been on for less than a week. It distracted me from everything else: I didn’t want to sleep, or watch TV, or think about anything but this book. The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood has been occupying my every thought since I picked it up.

You may think, “Oh, no, this is Atwood. She’s not for me.” I didn’t think so either, until I came across The Heart Goes Last.

Stan and Charmaine are a married couple fighting daily just to survive in a time after a huge economic decline, which has left the pair destitute and living in their car. With their only possessions packed into the vehicle, every night is a struggle to fend off the street gangs, druggies and anyone else desperate enough to attack them for their vehicle or belongings. It’s exhausting and much like the time of the Dust Bowl, the couple consider migrating out west for a better life.

Stan and Charmaine seem like your everyday couple in their early 30s and maybe that’s why I felt so connected to the book. The Heart Goes Last takes place in the Northeastern part of the United States sometime in the near future. People have smartphones and watch YouTube and read blogs, so it’s not too different from our present.

Their frustration is reaching a boiling point when they see the ad for Consilience, a gated community an hour or so away that will give everyone a job and a nice clean home to live in. It is the answer everyone has been waiting for: a safe community that is solving the unemployment crisis and making the streets safe again. Charmaine knows this is the right place for her and Stan to start over and be the happy married couple they once were. What’s the catch you might ask? The house is shared with another couple. For each month they live in the house, they have to spend an alternate month in prison. The people behind the Positron Project don’t try to hide the prison shift from potential residents, they proudly named their town by combining Cons + Resilience = Consilience.

Let’s take a minute to go back in time a bit, to the year 2008.

When the housing market bubble burst, it was a disaster for many families. People lost their jobs and their homes. My husband and I were working together at a small technology business at the time and the staff was quickly reduced by more than half. Two years later, with the business still struggling to survive, we were both cut to half-time. I was devastated, hysterical, scared for our future. Both our parents lost their homes. What would happen to us?

Could Joey and I one day end up like Stan and Charmaine? It weighed heavily on my thoughts throughout my entire reading session. Would I give up my freedom and live as a prisoner every other month if it meant I had a nice house to live in and a job?

Let’s go back to the book.

In Positron (the name of the Prison) everyone has a different job from the one in town. During his months in prison, Stan takes care of the chickens that produce eggs and provide food for the town. Charmaine works in the hospital. When the month is over, she returns to the bakery, while Stan returns to his job as a scooter mechanic. Everyone in town rides a shared scooter. On months when they’re in prison, their Alternates live in the house. It’s this shared communal process that keeps everyone in line and happy to do their part (go to prison). Throughout the book is the uplifting slogan, “Do time now, buy time for our future.”

Even the prison doesn’t seem so bad. Prisoners are encouraged to wear make up because you always want to look your best, and feeling your best is great for morale. When she’s not working, Charmaine knits teddy bears with her knitting group. It sounds like a very relaxing environment for someone considered a prisoner, almost like a vacation. I was intrigued, I can understand what the people get out of the project, but what does the prison get out it? It can’t be anything good. I had to find out. Stan and Charmine seemed so content living month in and month out of the prison.

But then, things take a turn. A very unsettling turn. Charmaine has a chance encounter with an Alternate that lead to a full blown love affair. Fraternizing with the Alternates is forbidden in Consilience and this romance puts Stan and Charmaine in danger. They are no longer safe and secure in their bell jar. But it’s not just the affair that is unsettling, strange things are starting to happen at the prison and in town including the arrival of prostibots, unusual town meeting agendas, and an enormous amount of knitted blue teddy bears.

My mind kept thinking about futuristic/dystopian films like Blade Runner and Ex Machina. It’s not that androids are a huge part of this book, but it does bring to mind the scenes of desperation. The ending gets a bit wild and that’s all I’ll say about it. Overall, it was a strange book that was constantly drawing me back to it, seducing me to give up the world for a week and unravel it’s tale. A book that kept me pondering about the prison system and my possible dystopian alternative timeline. And that title? Don’t worry about it, this really isn’t a Romance book.

Cost: $0.00 from my local library on Overdrive

Drink of Choice: Gingersnap Latte

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