I LOVED The Scarlet Letter in high school. It is a book that I think of fondly but I have not read it in uh 20 years. :O So, when I heard When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is based on The Scarlet Letter, I immediately forgot about the 30 to 40 other books I have laying around the house and went out and got it. It took me awhile to read it. I think part of the reason it took me so long to read is because it is brutally honest. While I am unsure what I expected When She Woke to be, I was not prepared for it. It is possible that I remember The Scarlet Letter through rose colored sunglasses.
When She Woke takes place in a future United States where people who commit crimes are punished by having their skin colored, Red, Blue or Yellow, depending upon the crime. “After the Second Great Depression, to relieve the financially crippled federal and state governments of the prohibitive cost of housing millions of prisoners” it is decided that “melachroming all but the most violent and incorrigible convicts was not only more cost effective than imprisoning them, it was also more of a deterrent against crime and a more humane means of punishment.” We meet Hannah Elizabeth Payne, who has just been chromed Red for the abortion of her unborn child. I think based upon the title I thought the book would be about Hannah’s life after she woke up from the melachroming process. In actuality, it is about her waking up from her sheltered life.
The book deals with abortion, crime and punishment, faith, what it means to be a woman, etc. You know really simple topics. The result is an often disturbing and frustrating book that provides glimpses behind the characters’ facades and then challenges us to do better in our own lives. While Hannah has an affair just like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, I think that the similarity between the two pretty much ends there. I think it is a misrepresentation to say that When She Woke is based on The Scarlet Letter because it oversimplifies the complexity of Jordan’s book. Furthermore, I don’t recall Hester Prynne growing and changing as a character mainly because women in 1650’s couldn’t. Jordan allows Hannah “for the first time in her life, there would be no limits to what she could do or who she could be, no one to tell her what she should and shouldn’t think about.” That in the end is very satisfying.
My only real ‘issue’ or ‘concern’ with the book is Hannah’s lack of chemistry with her lover, Aidan. The reader is only provided tiny flashbacks of their encounters. I never really ‘understood’ why she wanted to be with him. There was no real appeal to him. Maybe that is because we meet the ‘Red’ Hannah who is constantly transforming and growing as a character and we never completely see the sheltered Hannah who would fall for such a lame-o.