The Handmaid's Tale is a book that has more unfulfilled potential than any other book I've read recently. (I figured I should at least read one book of Atwood's, since I've taken the liberty of making fun of her so much in the past.) Plus, I've enjoyed most of the dystopias I've read in the past, and a feminist dystopia seemed to me to be awesome merely by existing.
Unfortunately, the "awesomeness" that I predicted was not quite delivered. While I will not argue that a dictatorial theocracy such as Gilead is improbable and therefore unbelievable in a story (as Mary McCarthy did in The New York Timesin 1986, the year after the book was published), I will say that I found the supposed pacing of the government take-over slightly unlikely. In addition, Offred (the main character's) wide swinging between I'm-fleeing-to-Canada-to-escape-the-religious-right-regime to I'm-a-concubine-whose-only-value-is-found-in-my-uterus-and-I'm-going-to-act-like-I'm-totally-cool-with-that to I'm-breaking-all-the-rules-and-my-give-a-damn-is-broken was incredibly distracting. The weaknesses of the story were, in my opinion, character-based and not premise-based.
In addition, the ending was a total cop-out. Did Offred escape her place as a sex slave? Didn't she? What's Atwood's main point? The "Historical Notes" at the end of the story are no help--they seem to imply that the religious fanaticism in Gilead was short-lived and, in hindsight, a bit of a joke, which completely lessens the impact and import of the story as a whole. As I wasn't entirely invested in the story of Offred, anyway, her disappearance and the dissection of her words seemed to me be tedious and unnecessary.
The only people to whom I would recommend this book are those who just finished The Feminist Mystique and are looking for a good pairing.