I read this over Christmas, so only about a month ago, but it turns out I'd already forgotten half the plot. After briefly refreshing my memory, here's what I've got.
It's the near future and most major industries have collapsed due to an unspecified economic breakdown. Stan and Charmaine are living out of their car, working odd jobs and trying to make ends meet. When they are offered a safe(ish) life in a walled-off experimental town, they don't hesitate for long. The only catch: every other month they have to leave their artificial 1950s bliss for a stint in the town's prison. Meanwhile, alternates take their place – and soon throw their lives into turmoil.
There are a few things about this novel that are just off, for lack of a better word. The main thing I couldn't get over was how naive and uncritical Charmaine was made out to be. Of course she was meant to be a foil to Stan (and her other, more secret self with Max) and a mirror of this whole 1950s aesthetic and how false it is, but come on: I opened the book at a random page to refamiliarise myself with the novel, and there she is, not even saying, but thinking: "Dang it to heck, I dropped a stitch."
You'd think a woman who has survived economic collapse and post-apocalyptic wastelands would get to swear inside the safety of her own head, but no. It's meant to be satirical, but it just kind of falls flat. And this assessment holds true for a large part of the novel.
Then there's the respectability politics. Charmaine and Stan are not doing well, but at least they're not those people. Charmaine might be a waitress at the beginning of the narrative, but she can still sneer at sex workers. Stan doesn't have a job and no prospects of getting one, but a life of crime? Unthinkable.
Margaret Atwood has always had certain blind spots (and penned some remarkable novels nonetheless), but in this book it was especially noticeable that what happens in the world is not a dystopia until it happens to formerly affluent, mentally and physically healthy, heterosexual white people. (For whom else were the 50s a grand time, anyway?)
All of this could have worked, and Atwood tries for an over the top, black humour approach, but it just doesn't, in the end. Work. By the time the last quarter of the book rolled around I was waiting for a very specific twist that might have made it all worthwhile, perhaps, but even that didn't happen. It was just sad to see a great author so out of touch.