Stan and Charmaine are living in their car. They used to live a comfortable middle-class life, but the downturn was worst in the Northeast and both of them lost their jobs and then their home. There has been a breakdown in society. The streets are dangerous and normal services are defunct.
Charmaine has been earning a bit as a waitress in a bar, and Stan has been looking for work. He is even forced to go to his shady brother Colin for help when it has always been the other way around. Colin offers him a job, but Stan decides to wait a while, knowing that the job is likely to be illegal.
On the TV at the bar, Charmain sees an ad for the Positron Project, which offers employment and housing. When Stan and Charmain attend an introductory session, they’re not told very much except that if they return, they will not be allowed to leave. They must be ready to commit to the project.
Stan and Charmaine decide to give up their freedom for stability, even though Colin warns them not to go there. When they commit to the project, they find that the whole community is built around a prison. To create enough work around the prison, the staff must alternate one month inside the prison as inmates, one month out, sharing their house with another couple that is in when they are out.
This situation doesn’t seem to disturb them, and they continue on for a year. Then Charmaine becomes romantically involved with their male alternate, who calls himself Max. This relationship eventually leads to discoveries about the true nature of the project.
The Heart Goes Last allows Atwood full rein of her acerbic sense of humor and biting satire. It is reminiscent of the darker excesses of the Maddaddam trilogy but without any very sympathetic characters. Instead, it gets progressively more absurd as it continues. Its references to the current political climate are obvious. Although I found this novel entertaining, I did not enjoy it as much as I have some of Atwood’s other novels.
Note: Caroline of Rosemary and Reading Glasses has written this fascinating post comparing this novel to Milton’s Paradise Lost.