The Last Book I Loved: The Handmaid’s Tale


My boyfriend sometimes says things like, “Back in high school, I was a theater geek.” What he means is that he attended acting camps during all his summer vacations, and he played juicy supporting roles like Horatio and Don Pedro in his high school’s Shakespeare productions.

This niggles me. I think the phrase “theater geek” is an oxymoron. Theater people are not geeks.

Actually, let me qualify that statement. While it is conceivable that some tech crew personnel are geeks, actors are not true geeks.

Thespians are a class of human beings that I deeply admire, a demographic that I would stamp with many laudatory adjectives, but “geeky” is not one of them. Actors are selected by casting directors with a bias toward physical attractiveness, tallness, thinness, sexiness, grace, poise, etc. Beautiful, sexy, non-awkward people are in no way deserving of the title of “geek.”

In high school, my friends and I were the geekiest of the geeks, and we were damn proud of it. I was the top scorer on my high school’s math team. Cameras hated me, and the animosity was mutual. I wore braces on my teeth, held in place by vibrant pink rubber bands. The frames of my eyeglasses were thick, circular, and iridescent. When I mustered the gumption to speak up at all, I spoke in a weird squeaky voice tinged by an Asian accent. I was physically awkward and had many unattractive tics, such as a tendency to wring my hands whenever I felt ill at ease in my surroundings, which was 90% of the time.

My fellow geeks consistently met with rejection whenever they auditioned for school plays. They ended up as members of the tech crew, pit orchestra, or audience, but never as actors. Many of my geeky friends were ardent lovers of Shakespeare, and it saddened them that they were never allowed to embody Shakespeare’s characters. The harlequins, hunchbacks, and misfits with whom the Bard peopled his imaginary landscapes: we geeks thought that, given the opportunity, we might be able to play these roles quite believably.

Like Shakespeare’s eunuchs and wise fools, my geeky friends and I were not sexually active. In other social circles, the most admired female is the one who has had the most sexual escapades, the femme fatale who has the most goggle-eyed boys on her string. In my circle, the girl I most envied was the one who had read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and could recount the sexually complicated plotline for everyone’s edification.

It’s strange to look back at the prestigious position this one novel occupied in my teenage mind, and in the minds of so many other teenage female geeks: for us, reading The Handmaid’s Tale was like going to third base. It all came back to me today when I saw Atwood’s novel listed as #22 on NPR’s ranking of the top hundred science-fiction books of all time: the second-highest-ranked book by a female author, after Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (#20). In crafting the chilling narrative of a woman named Offred who is forced into sexual slavery in a dystopian future version of the U.S., Atwood wrote a classic that well deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Shelley’s.

When I think of The Handmaid’s Tale, I think of the paperback version, with its cover illustration by Fred Marcellino depicting two women in off-red dresses seen from a vantage point so far overhead that their feminine curves are not apparent. This desexualized image is reminiscent of a Dürer engraving in its equanimity. With its subdued cover design, The Handmaid’s Tale is a book a teenage girl can openly read on the school bus or at her family’s dinner table without raising an eyebrow. All this belies the fact that Atwood’s classic is actually an explosive blend of sex and politics that topped Time Magazine’s recent list of Most Banned Books.

Casually brandishing The Handmaid’s Tale as you strolled down your high-school corridors, you felt like you were getting away with something. It was an act of rebellion, quasi-felonious and quasi-fellatious: a sumptuous red-collared crime. As you walked down the hall toting The Handmaid’s Tale, you would see some bully striding in the opposite direction carrying The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged or something, and you would meet their eye unflinchingly, and you would not give an inch. For a geek girl, a simple moment like that was nothing short of electrifying, no less a triumph than wearing the garb of Juliet and kissing “Romeo” while bathed by adoring floodlights.

Jenna Lê, a daughter of Vietnamese refugees, lives and works as a physician and educator in New Hampshire. She is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011) and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Anchor & Plume, 2016). Her poetry has appeared in AGNI Online, The Best of the Raintown Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Denver Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, and Massachusetts Review, while her essays and criticism have been published by Burrow Press, Fanzine, Pleiades, Poetry Northwest, The Rumpus, and SPECS. Her website is More from this author →