Tuesday, August 16, 2011

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

In a mood to review, again. Weekly updates will begin next Tuesday.

I know I'm jumping the gun, here, reviewing When She Woke by Hillary Jordan well before its October release date, but when a review copy showed up in my mailbox I was so excited that I lost any tentative grip I had on self-control and immediately began reading.

When She Woke is a retelling of The Scarlet Letter that takes place in an undated but obviously not-too-distant future. Hannah Payne has been raised with a strong religious background, working as a wedding-dress seamstress, still living at home as an adult. After embarking on an affair and becoming pregnant, she has committed a crime.

Criminals known as Chromes are injected with a virus that changes their skin color, the differing color depending upon the crime involved. In a time period when a plague has rendered a large portion of the population infertile, abortion is murder.

The man with whom Hannah has had an affair is married and very well-known. Refusing to reveal the father of her unborn child seals her fate. Caught and tried as the murderer of her unborn child, Hannah awakens in a cell where her every move is observed by guards and broadcast to the public. Her skin is bright red to reflect her crime. After weeks of nothingness in a barren room, she is released to a world where she is not only taunted but endangered. Where can she go and how will she survive?

There's so much to this story that I think I'll just keep my thoughts fairly general. When She Woke has a central character who has been stigmatized, questions herself and -- as the blurb says -- embarks on a "path of self-discovery that forces [Hannah] to question the values she has held true and the righteousness of a country that politicizes faith." Obviously, When She Woke is a very timely novel.

Hannah's true challenge begins as she is given a choice of living visibly in a world where she is in constant danger or moving into a home where the rules are so strict and petty that she's always in peril of being cast out and continually experiences punishing reminders of why she is a pariah.

I guess my biggest problem with When She Woke was that I never fully understood why Hannah felt abortion was an absolute necessity, given the fact that her family seemed more likely to accept a child than to harbor a known criminal. And, her intense and continued love of the man who impregnated her was, I thought, a bit irrational and hard to buy into. Not that love is necessarily a rational thing. Hormones have always led to tricky situations, haven't they?

Having mentioned what I consider some of the negatives, I do think When She Woke is a thought-provoking and surprisingly gripping book that will likely be a hit in book groups. There is a great deal worth discussing and the author does an excellent job of imagining the dangers of a world in which there is visible evidence of one's crime. The idea of people being visibly punished in such a way also seems stunningly plausible in a country where religion and politics are becoming increasingly blended, if not confused.

The ending is a little too neat and tidy, but the vast majority of When She Woke is excellent as Hannah's challenges become even more oppressive and life-threatening, the farther you get into the book. I love reading about characters who are so thoroughly backed into a corner that it's difficult to imagine a way out. When She Woke is chiefly about being yourself, not conforming to what society says you must do and be. I love the theme; I just didn't totally buy into the romance with the fellow who fathered the child she aborted.

Highly recommended, particularly as a book group selection. When She Woke is scheduled for release on October 4, 2011. Many thanks to Algonquin Books for sending me the advance review copy, which I'll be passing on to another blogger.

©2011 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email bookfoolery@gmail.com for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. I really want to read this! I loved The Scarlet Letter. I am looking forward to its release. :)

  2. This sounds like a really great adaption of The Scarlet Letter, and like something that I would really like to read. I am glad that you liked it, but I can also see that some of it puzzled you. I am wondering what my reaction to it will be. Great review!

  3. Kelly,

    I hope you do. I'd love to hear your thoughts about it.


    It is, indeed. Yes, I didn't necessarily agree with Hannah's choices and found her a little puzzling, at times, but I do think When She Woke has a great theme and it's a book worth reading and talking about.

  4. Anonymous2:45 PM

    I can't wait to read this one! I hadn't realized there was a connection to The Scarlet Letter.

  5. Oh, this sounds like an interesting read. Something about it sounds like a novel Margaret Atwood might write. Did you read Mudbound? Excellent novel! I think you did read it but I'm too lazy too search your archives. I probably learned about it from you! ;)

  6. Softdrink,

    It's a loose connection - more of a parallel - but they're both branded by their crime or sin in a way that makes what they've done wrong plain to all who see them.


    No, actually, because of my distaste for Southern fic, I still haven't gotten around to reading Mudbound. I keep thinking I've got a copy of it around here, somewhere, but if I do I can't find it. So, I may have to check it out from the library, someday. I do like her writing.

  7. Doesn't it also have an intriguing cover? I am looking forward to this one and glad to hear you enjoyed it!

  8. Iliana,

    Yes, that bright red face really is a grabber!

  9. I've already read this one too and really need to jot down my thoughts before too long.

    I thought she didn't want to have the baby because they would do dna tests and figure out who the father was that way (I'd have to double check that though).

    The part that seemed out of the blue to me was with Simone near the end.

  10. Alyce,

    I figured I'd forget everything if I didn't bother to review, soon!

    I don't recall her saying anything about DNA testing, but I have a feeling if she had the baby, she knew the father would step forward and potentially ruin his career. But, then at some point I thought she also admitted that she didn't want to raise a baby without a father -- way toward the end of the book. It was hard to get a grip on what she was thinking about baby vs. abortion, I thought.

    Simone . . . weirdness. I forgot to put up a family warning. Thanks for the reminder.

  11. I had to go back and look because it was driving me crazy that I couldn't remember. :)

    The part in the beginning says that she if she had the baby she would be imprisoned for contempt until she named the father, and then they would test him to confirm it. Which is where I think I got the idea of the DNA testing, but clearly you remembered her reasoning far better than I did. :) After re-reading that section I definitely think that she was afraid he would step forward.

  12. Alyce,

    That's so funny. I can never find those details when I go back to search for them. Thanks for sharing that with me. I knew she caused herself more trouble by not admitting who the father was, but I couldn't remember exactly what the deal was. So, she was trying to protect him . . . which is kind of odd because if she'd just had the baby and stayed away from him, wouldn't that have served the same purpose? There were things I questioned about her decisions, but still . . . great book, very thought-provoking.

  13. (just finished the book) It wasn't only that she wanted to protect Aidan, but that she would destroy his career and the faith of all the people who believed in him, including his family, if she kept the baby and therefore had to name the father.

    I don't know yet how I feel about the ending, but I'm really glad Aidan didn't turn out to be an a.h., even if he was still a chicken sort of guy!

  14. Jill,

    Okay, that must have been part of what I didn't understand: Why would she have to name the father if she gave birth?

    I agree; it was nice that Aidan turned out to be a stand-up guy. But, I still had some problems with where she took it in the end.


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