Friday, January 24, 2014

Book Review: When She Woke

Imagine Hester Prynne's scarlet letter being a red body, Arthur Dimmesdale as a televangelist, and little Pearl being, well, non-existent, and you have Hillary Jordan's When She Woke. It's The Scarlet Letter of the future.

There is no dividing line between church and state, and there are no prisons. Criminals aren't tucked away in prisons to rehabilitate but are "chromed": their skin color is genetically altered to match their crime. Once chromed, they are put back into society, where they are despised. Basically anything can be done to Chromes without repercussion.

Hannah (Hester Prynne) is a Red—a murderer. Her crime is abortion, and that she refused to name the father of her baby makes her crime even worse. It's no spoiler to reveal that her lover is her married pastor, a Joel Osteen-like Arthur Dimmesdale who seduced young Hannah, predictably raised in an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist home.

On a certain level, I found the book fascinating. Jordan is a great writer, so that was a big bonus. But too much happened—and not enough happened. Hannah is sent to a sort of halfway house that's run by some kind of warped headmistress. She meets a cast of Chromes there that I would have loved to see developed more. Ultimately Hannah escapes and heads into the real world.

Things got weird from here on out and moved really fast. Hannah and her friend, a Yellow, hook up with a pro-choice group and are forced into an underground railroad/witness protection type program. Somehow these people are able to intercept the signals that tell where Chromes are. Of course, Hannah has to see Pastor Dale one more time before she goes away to Canada forever.

In many ways I really liked the first part of the book. It was intriguing and the pace was good. But things got rushed midway through, and so much was thrown at the  reader that it began to read too much like a let's-cram-as-much-in-as-possible tract. I liked the twist on The Scarlet Letter, and I love dystopian novels in general. I think this one had too much of the author's own bias in it and it felt too preachy. An intriguing concept, though, so I don't not recommend it—it's just not quite my cup of tea. I think it would make a fantastic movie!


westmetromommy said...

I might have to give this book a try. I understand your frustrations with it, and I'd probably share them, but the Scarlet Letter is one of my favorite books and that alone intrigues me about this book.

Melody said...

I agree with you exactly. Despite the strength of her opinion (I really dislike novels with an agenda) I found the first half of the book to be quite well written and thoughtful, and I looked forward to seeing where she would take it. But then each time I thought we'd start getting into the meat of the inner development, there was a plot twist and the deeper stuff was glossed over. It ended up feeling like an action movie, and left me dissatisfied.