This is my review from 2012 and an update:
HT was not the first work by Atwood that I read, that was a short story or two in a Canadian Lit class, but it was the first novel by Atwood that I read. I read it over the summer, over the length of a day, torn between the story and the World Cup and walking the dog. It's a favorite novel, though not my favorite Atwood, that isThe Robber Bride.
HT apparently has moved to the current events section of several libraries, moved from the fiction section. Women protesting anti-abortion laws in Washington DC have dressed up as Handmaids. The novel has been adapted both as a movie and an opera.
Perhaps the future that Atwood depicts in this novel won't come to past (we do seem to be past the date, yet even with the doubt (or knowledge) that such future will not exist, yet we see echoes of it in today's world. Events of the novel seem to happening regardless.
Okay, maybe not the dressing in red and blue, but the other issues. Women forbidden to work and read, women who can't own anything not even thier bodies, women who must produce a child or be cast aside, young girls married off to men they don't know. Even if those places were equality reigns women still, on average, earn less than men for the same amount of work. Atwood's Gilead is at once far off and too near, a point that all good literature has. (The blame on Islamic terrorists is a very intersting connection to the current day).
While the book is feminist, it is also humanist. Offred might be passive but in the characters of Luke, Offred's mom, and Moira we have the feminist voice. If anything, the book is a caution about either type of extreme - extreme religion and extreme sexual freedom (Feels on wheels, Pormomarts) - both of which seem to be, to various degrees, not good.
Additionally, Atwood deals with the issue of complancy. Offred is less feminist than her mother, than Moira. And while we admire both mom and Moira we think we might be more like Offred, because nameless Offred (of Fred) is the Everywoman in this Everyman parable.
Perhaps this is the reason why this story is so timeless, why it stands the test of time, why it would've made Atwood's name even if she never wrote anything else. The questions it raises about gender, women, society, life, and family are still one we debate today, are still definitions we debate today - what is a family, is abortion about life or control of a woman's body, why the differences standards for women and men?
This is a great book that is always timely.
Updated review (7/25/2015) - Still importance. Impressive watching a whole class get caught up in it. I have to wonder, however, why inner-cities students respond to it far more deeply and enjoy it far more. And I mean students, the men were just as into it.