Review: MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood

I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book. When the “August New Releases” email came around from the team at Random House, it was noted that very few ARCs were available for Margaret Atwood’s third and final novel in her recent series, MaddAddam. Surprise, surprise. Peg doesn’t need a random Canadian blogger reviewing her book before it comes out. People are going to buy this book regardless. Having said that, I was thrilled to receive a copy in the mail the weekend before it officially showed up in bookstores! The joy.

I adored The Year of the Flood which is the second book in the MaddAddam series that I actually read first. It was, embarrassingly enough, my first real read of an Atwood novel (Cat’s Eye in high school that I hastily paged through for English class doesn’t quite count). I had heard, most likely from those who also skimmed her novels as they sped though their “required reading list” in high school or university, that her books were overly preachy regarding feminism. The Year of the Flood wasn’t preachy at all. Nor was it overly dystopic. Well, it was dystopic, sure, but fascinatingly so. It stood out to me as a beautiful story between two friends. It seems that every story these days must revolve around a romantic relationship. What happens at the end? Boy gets together with girl, or doesn’t. (Girl with girl, boy with boy, what have you.) I loved that The Year of the Flood created such a beautiful friendship between two women. Non-traditional and a really nice change.

I also read Oryx and Crake, the first book in the series that I read second. I heard that this didn’t matter and indeed it didn’t. The stories wind in and around each other and characters from each book make an appearance in the other. From what I’ve heard, the first book that you read of the series seems to be the one you like best. So I did really enjoy this book and it added so much to the world of the story I’d created in my head, but I certainly preferred The Year of the Flood.

But enough about the first two books.

MaddAddam is the only book in the series I would suggest not reading out of order. The story begins directly after the last scene in The Year of the Flood where the main characters have finally come together with those from Oryx and Crake. The Crakers, a super-human people created by Crake, have been caring for Jimmy, or “Snowman” as he is known to them, who at this point is on the verge of death. Amanda, Ren and Toby, our heroines from The Year of the Flood, have just come upon Jimmy and the Crakers after Amanda has been rescued by the MaddAddam group’s human enemy, the Painballers. Through a misunderstanding of grave proportion, the Crakers set the Painballers free, and the dye is cast for the MaddAddam group; find and kill the Painballers, or live in constant fear.

The whole group congregates with the MaddAddamites at a temporary living space. Toby is reunited with Zeb, a fellow member of the God’s Gardeners, who she has been in love with for years. Toby is the narrator in this novel and we follow her as she nurses Jimmy back to health, takes his role as storyteller to the Crakers, and works with the other MaddAddamites to hatch a plan to find and kill the Painballers. In and around this story line, we hear about Zeb’s past in a series of stories told to Toby.

I’m sure it’s nearly impossible to read a description of this story and understand it without knowing anything about the MaddAddam trilogy, as it would also be impossible to read this book without first reading the other two. But, if you have read The Year of the Flood and Oryx and Crake, I hope the small summary has served to be informative.

As I mentioned, I couldn’t wait to get this book. Once I started reading it, it was like being reunited with old friends. “There’s Amanda! Is she okay? And Jimmy! Will he survive?” I wondered all these things as I read the first hundred pages. Off the top, I was disappointed that we were only treated to Toby as a narrator. Sure, Zeb’s voice is used, but that’s only because he’s speaking directly to Toby. I missed Ren’s voice that Atwood so skillfully wove into Toby’s in The Year of the Flood. Because we didn’t hear from Ren, we also didn’t hear from Amanda. At times she seemed like a distant character we had never gotten to know. Now sure, she’s been raped by the Painballers and she’s in a really bad place, but I was quite shocked that Atwood almost wrote her out entirely as she was my favourite character from book two.

Another form of narration in the book, as I mentioned is storytelling. Jimmy, or “Snowman-the-Jimmy,” occupied the role of storyteller with the Crakers. Each night they would cook a fish for him, he would put on his red baseball cap, and he would pretend to listen to his watch and tell a story. When Jimmy took ill, he wasn’t able to tell these stories and Toby became the stand in. She confesses to Zeb that she doesn’t know what to tell them, as they’re like children and don’t understand certain words in the English language that they haven’t heard or experienced before. Zeb offers to tell her the story of how he ate a bear. Once Toby tells this story to the Crakers, they become transfixed on Zeb, so Toby must ask him to tell her more and more stories to satisfy the Crakers.

I found this style of narration interesting, at first, but began to tire of it quite quickly. First Zeb would tell a story to Toby, then Toby would retell it to the Crakers using simple language. In this way, there was shockingly little that actually took place in the “present time” of the book. It was really interesting to learn about Zeb’s past, especially his relationship with his scheming reverend father and his brother, Adam, who started the God’s Gardeners (maybe we knew this already? If so, I had clearly forgotten they were related and it came as a total shock to me). It was a shame, though, to not have more action actually take place in the present. I knew that MaddAddam would bring The Year of the Flood and Oryx and Crake together and I had been so excited to see these worlds collide but ended up feeling like I got very little of that. What I did take from these stories of Zeb’s early life, however, was how unbelievably creative Atwood is and the richness of the world in which these characters dwell. Many things are shocking and hideous (porn meets virtual reality and a lot of violence) and others are frightening in a different way, like the pigoons – pigs grown with human organs to provide transplants. Unbelievable, sure, but impossible? Who knows…

I was also quite surprised to see such a change in Toby’s character. She went from a strong woman who when the waterless flood hit, barricaded herself in the spa where she had worked. She  survived many hardships, but made it to the point when MaddAddam begins. In MaddAddam, however, she’s turned into some love-sick, jealous woman. Where was the Toby from The Year of the Flood? Maybe, since she had worked so hard to survive, she only wanted simple things for her future? Maternal instincts kicked in once she realized that they, the MaddAddamites, were part of a group who must rebuild humanity? Who knows.

I wanted so much more from the present time. Who else was out there in this world other than the two Painballers? What did the rest of the world look like? Would they stay in what seemed to be the United States or leave? As I neared the end of the book, I wondered if maybe this was on purpose. The MaddAddamites didn’t know, so why would we, the readers know? I was curious at how the book would end; would we see any flash forwards? Would there be new life born into the community? An epilogue? Afterword? It’s hard to feel justified when reading an ending to a book you loved, let alone a trilogy, so I was nervous. No spoilers here, but I wasn’t thrilled with it. There was a lot of information for information’s sake and I would have rather not known any of it, as it was told through a series of short paragraphs that I just don’t feel did the story justice.

I knew it was going to be hard to write a review of this book which is why I’ve left it so long. This is a book by Margaret Atwood. She’s a master in her craft, and I know that any decisions she makes are on purpose and with reason, so I do trust her as a writer. It was because of this reason that I took a few weeks to think on the book and try to understand it. In the end, I do believe that she’s making quite a statement about the importance of storytelling. It was vital in our evolution and, when nothing else remains, it will be vital in rebuilding it. In terms of the way that she treated the ending of the book, I now realize that she’s telling us, the reader, that in the grand scheme of things, it’s the humanity and the future that are important and the simple fact that they continue. Individual characters are vital to the start of something new, but in the end, they become names in stories that are told for generation after generation.

So in the end, I liked parts of this book a lot. The Year of the Flood remains the best book in the series, for me, and it was vital to have closure with these characters and to read MaddAddam. This book seemed to be a very long epilogue to the other two. I look forward to hearing what others have to say about MaddAddam, and, more importantly, what Atwood will write next.

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. kleinerika says:

    I guess we all have a differing points of view. I much preferred Oryx and Crake over the Year of the Flood, and I felt that MaddAddam could be a stand alone read. The best parts of the book for me, was the re telling with different characters, her usage of the f word in Zeb’s vocabulary, as well as the Crakers praying to Flying F***. I think these are the best books she’s written besides handmaids tale. I will most likely re read again and again.

  2. Bets says:

    I agree almost completely with your review. The Year of the Flood was my favourite with the artful creation of the Gardener cult and Toby and Ren’s relationship. While I couldn’t put Maddaddam down – Toby, Ren, Amanda, Zeb, and Jimmy were all very dear to me and I combed the pages for a little more about them, what I found was unsatisfactory. I missed hearing more about Ren and Amanda, although I thought that Amanda’s listlessness and the role reversal between Ren and Amanda was realistic (I still really missed them both, though.) Like you, I also found the Crakers and the stories for them quickly tiresome, although I appreciated the theme of storytelling and mythmaking, of telling stories about the simpler things in life: love, death, what we eat and shit, and the word-play, and especially the little post-sex talks between Toby and Zeb. (which part of Chuck did you take? stop patting my bum.) Zeb and Adam’s relationship was the strongest aspect of the book for me (no, we never knew they were brothers before): two brothers who fundamentally disagree but care deeply about each other; in some ways, the stories seem to be all about how Zeb is still looking for Adam One (amid his inertia at the cobhouse, and the intimacy of sharing all this with Toby.) I was especially disappointed by the ending: hearing about how Zeb and Toby so abruptly through Blackbeard’s plaintive voice. What happened to Zeb and who cast the smoke column? I still want so much more; more intense insights into Toby’s thoughts, into what Amanda and Ren and Croze and Shackie are doing (and what’s up with Croze cheating on Ren?), after hearing so much about Toby and Zeb why are we forced to be so distant from them after the battle? There’s “closure” but it’s a frustrating closure.

  3. megmoon says:

    I’ve just finished Year of the Flood and was panicking about whether to read Oryx and Crake first or MaddAddam- I figured as much but it’s good to double check. I stopped reading your post after that as I didn’t want any spoilers but I’ll come back and read it after I’ve got through the other two.

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