There's a lot to be said about this book, enough so that it's impossible to say it without giving too much of the story away. So treat this post as being spoiler-ridden, and stop after I say this: This is an important book that you need to read, no matter what kind of fiction you like.
The story is about a near-future society where the ultra-conservative have taken over. A declining birth rate and a general distaste of open sexuality leads to the takeover, which puts nearly all women in a subservient role. One would expect this new society to be patriarchal, and while it does favor the men (they are given the positions of power to develop this society, and they appear to the be the only ones who are allowed to own property), it's the women who appear to really be in charge. Women train the subservients, the women are the real heads of households, and the women appear to be the ones who lead the society. How much of this is actually true depends on the one telling us the story, and Offred, our narrator, may not be a reliable narrator.
In this society, women are classified as Aunts, Marthas, Wives, or Handmaids, each with their particular roles: Aunts are the trainers and the monitors of the Handmaids; Marthas are older women who are infertile but still serve a useful role in the society; Wives are the highest ranking women in the society, and are married to men of power; and Handmaids are fertile women who are passed from house to house to birth children for the Wives. Handmaids are basically surrogates who are forced to sleep with the husbands in hopes of bearing children with them, since Wives appear to be infertile. Even their names suggest their subservience, since they are derived from the names of the husbands. Offred, our narrator, is the Handmaid to a man named Fred, and Ofglen, a neighbor, is the handmaid to a man named Glen. Once the Handmaids leave a household, they lose the name and take on a new one based on which household they join next.
Atwood hints at how miserable this society is for women from the very start of the story. We're told that windows are shatterproof, that there are no mirrors in any rooms the women frequent (not that their appearance is even important to begin with), that chandeliers and belts no longer exist to prevent hangings, etc. It's shocking at first, but the more Atwood paints the picture of this society, the clearer it becomes. In one particular scene, a Handmaid is presented as giving birth, and then having her daughter ("a girl, poor thing," our narrator tells us) passed immediately to the Wife in the household. The closest time she will have with her child will be a month of breast-feeding, and then she will belong completely to the Wife, as the Handmaid will move on to the next family. She will be granted freedom from being a Handmaid after her third birth, but once her value disappears, what hold does she really have in this society? It's not hard to imagine preferring death to that kind of existence.
The husband in the household where the narrator lives, the Commander, is presented as a frail, meek sort of man. At first, it's hard to have much of an opinion for him, but Atwood starts to hint at him being a sympathetic character. He doesn't seem particularly engaged with the ideas of this society, even disengaging himself mentally during the Ceremony, and later he even invites her into his private room (secretly, of course; this is still illegal behavior in the house, for her to spend private time with a husband) to play Scrabble and talk. He has a stash of illegal items, from women's magazines from before the revolution, to a feathered teddy, and he wants to engage the narrator in conversation. He even asks her what she thinks of the current state of society. But later, when he tries to justify this new existence, and tells her that things are better for women there, you realize that Atwood has been playing with you. Even when he thinks he's trying to help, the Commander still doesn't understand.
As a story, there are some parts of it that are questionable and may leave the plot-driven readers with too many questions (How did this takeover happen so quickly, and so completely? How did the revolutionaries gun down the President and all of Congress, and how was that enough to convince the rest of the world to follow them?), but the story requires that the narrator remember the previous world while being completely entrenched in the current one. Ultimately, the question of how is a minor quibble in relation to the story that surrounds it.
There's a touch of hope at the end of the story, when the narrator, who has committed all sorts of illegal acts, including having an affair with another servant in the household, is taken away by the new revolutionaries who are trying to get women out of this society. An afterword of sorts, presented as a lecture at an English university some hundreds of years after the events of the story, suggests that she escaped, and was able to tell this story of her time in that society. There's still no definite answer as to her fate (she at least made it far enough to be able to record her story onto cassette tapes), and it's suggested that where she was after her time there was still a part of this patriarchy, but we do know that it doesn't last. It's been long enough since the fall of that society that the speaker feels comfortable enough to make a joke or two about it, but it's a small consolation after seeing the intimate details of what this society means for women, especially when we also learn that the version of society we read about was only the first step in a larger development of confinement and subservience.
The story is obviously very feminist, so it winds up being very political, as well. It's a harsh look at ultra-conservativism, more relevant now than it was when the book was originally published (1986). It's not hard to find news about this anti-abortion law or that pro-religion law, or anything that combines the two. The society presented in The Handmaid's Tale is ridiculous and far-fetched, yes, but it's also easy to see how it could happen within one or two generations. When you hear some of the ridiculous ideas suggested by certain political figures now, and realize that their views of women are horribly outdated and insulting, it's not too hard to see how this could happen.