two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
57-Mar-Apr-2012
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A-When-She-Woke-1Hillary Jordan is the author of the novel Mudbound ( 3.5 of 5 Stars May/June 2008), set in post-World War II Mississippi. When She Woke, a dystopian take on Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 classic, The Scarlet Letter, is her second novel.

The Story: In the not-too-distant future, America is ruled by Texas fundamentalist Christians; Roe v. Wade has been repealed; and civil liberties are a thing of the past. Not surprisingly, 26-year-old Hannah Payne pays a steep price for her affair with married superstar preacher Aidan Dale. Rather than reveal her lover's identity and ruin his career, she undergoes an illegal abortion. Her punishment? Hannah is "melachromed": injected with a brilliant red skin pigment that proclaims her a murderer. Her body will be tainted for 16 years. Cast out by family and friends and sent to live in a halfway house, Hannah must find her way in a world that considers her a pariah.
Algonquin Books. 352 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 9781565126299

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars"[A]s compulsively readable as it is thought-provoking. ... Jordan's dystopian update of The Scarlet Letter hits the touchstones of the classic--sin, shame, judgment, forgiveness and redemption--but the speculative setting gives the story an unexpected plausibility." Robin Vidimos

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars"Jordan continues to explore moral and political complexity, but the engine of her second novel is self-discovery. ... An inventive tale about a new America that has lost its way--whose values echo fundamentalism--When She Woke is, at its heart, a tense, energetic and lively paced story about self-discovery and reclamation in the wake of enormous shame." Kathryn Savage

Cleveland Plain Dealer 2.5 of 5 Stars"Jordan brings a reductive feminism to her fiction. ... Still, the character of Hannah Payne (note the unsubtle surname) will spark many an intriguing book club discussion." Rollie Welch

San Antonio Exp-News 2.5 of 5 Stars"Tracing the parallels to the novels by [Hawthorne] and Atwood was mostly fun--at first. After a while, it all seemed self-conscious, precious and without the follow-through that would make those parallels meaningful or the story half so interesting had those echoes not been written in." Yvette Benavides

Washington Post 1 of 5 Stars"Ninety percent of the men here are cowards or brutes or would-be rapists; at least 50 percent of the Christians are full-on certifiable. When She Woke seems to me to be primarily agitprop: ham-handed, disrespectful and quite dumb in places where it should be smart." Carolyn See

Critical Summary

Jordan's dystopian novel, which drew the inevitable comparisons to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, garnered mixed reviews. Several critics found it a compelling look at contemporary, hot-button issues, including abortion, religion, and our flawed legal system, and a good choice for book groups. But others were bothered by the author's simplistic characterizations of men and religious figures. Washington Post critic Carolyn See even dismissed the story as "a lesbian-feminist road-trip thriller." Most agreed that Jordan's Mudbound, which deals with racism and sexism in the Jim Crow South, is a superior novel; readers new to her work might wish to start there.