This review will contain spoilers!
In many sentences:
Let's first discuss the style and writing of The Handmaid's Tale. The writing, though not beautiful, is very impressive. Atwood does an excellent job of capturing the sense of recollection, and internal monologue of the narrator, without devolving into the confusion of a truly stream of conscious work. In fact, if you were to analyze each sentence deeply, the grammar and structure could become confusing. However, if you allowed the sentence to flow naturally, and take it as whole, it begins to feel very natural, and reminiscent of how (for me at least) I think.
I also enjoyed the progression of the story. While there is a lot held back at the beginning, and though it can be confusing, it's not annoying or needless. The slow revelation of the disturbing quality of both the world before the Gilead regime, and the regime itself, was fascinating. It definitely made me want to continue reading. It's a fine line between annoyingly withholding, and keeping the intrigue alive, but I think Atwood is able to manage this difficulty successfully.
Another aspect of this book that I really enjoyed was how Atwood manages to show how both the time before the change was terrible, as well as the time after. Before, the lack of respect for women became so bad, that birthing children was grinding to a halt and sex crimes such as rape seemed almost common. After is obviously awful as well, with women being unable to read, or have any of their own freedoms. At several times, the point is made that before there was a lack of freedom due to fear, but now there is a more literal lack of freedom. It was interesting, too, because through our narrator we are able to see how resilient the human race is. In spite of the circumstances, she is always able to remain hopeful, and to search for an escape to her predicament, other than death.
I would have enjoyed having more detail on the world that she lived in, outside of her own experience, but at the same time it wouldn't have made sense if she, as a Handmaid, knew too much about what was going on. Our own experience is limited by our narrator's, and while frustrating at times, it is logical.
I'm not sure about most readers, but I absolutely loved the "Historical Notes" at the end of the novel. After all, this is a fictitious novel set in an unrealistic future, so why not go even further, and pretend as though we, the reader, are from a future beyond the one the book was written in. In fact, this reminds me of something I wish happened in more first person novels - I wish that at the end of the book, when the climax is about to happen, it would switch from first to third person. In most first person novels, you know that the character will live because, how else could they narrate to us? However, if the perspective were to shift (or shift to a different character) there would be actual anxiety over the fate of the narrator. By stopping when it does, we get a similar, though not exactly the same, effect here.
One last thing I would like to mention - from what little I have discussed this book with others, there seems to be the opinion that this book is scary or difficult to read (emotionally) because it could really happen. I never felt this, while reading. While the world we live in certainly has some of the problems reminiscent of the "time before", I simply don't see how we would suddenly have a world full of the repression seen here. At the same time, the fact that I don't see it as a potential reality, does not take away from the message of the book, nor is it even a negative. I didn't read The Handmaid's Tale for a prophetic vision of our dark future.
I definitely recommend this book. The writing and composition are fantastic, and while the grim future it portrays may not be just around the bend, I think there is a lot modern readers can take from it. How far is too far when removing the differences between the genders, and the respect and equality those differences can create? How far is too far for those who wish to return to the past, when the role of a woman was in the home? By exaggerating both scenarios, Atwood does an excellent job of bringing to light the problems in each. I look forward to reading other books by Atwood, as well, and I hope they are as entertaining and well-crafted as this one.