Monday, April 23, 2012

A Scarlet Letter for Today

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is a sci-fi re-imagining of The Scarlet Letter. In this not-so-distant future, abortion is outlawed in the state of Texas, where Hannah Payne, a naive young dressmaker, grew up. When she has an affair with a flashy televangelist named Aidan Dale, her crime is not bearing an illegitimate is aborting it. Convicted felons have their jail time televised and skin dyed bright red before their release. This is the point at which we meet Hannah, a modern Texan Hester Prynne.
With timely, trenchant social commentary reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's classic The Handmaid's Tale, and a lot of interesting action as Hannah bounces from a religious halfway house to an underground railroad of sorts, this book brings up a lot of interesting talking points and questions. So I can definitely envision this being a good book club selection, especially if paired with Jordan's previous book, Mudbound, or The Handmaid's Tale , which are both available here at the library as Caboodle Kits.

I did feel ambivalent about some aspects of the book. Yes, the dystopian setting is controversial, but it was actually the characters who I had a problem with; they just didn't always ring true. In some ways, Hannah's character is frustratingly naive, but in other ways, she seems far too knowing and adaptable. I couldn't help comparing her to Offred in Atwood's classic: I kept longing for a little cynicism and snark at moments like when she sews a doll to represent her aborted baby (she names it Pearl, of course). My favorite moments are seen from a distance, when other characters react to her permanent beet-red flush. She looks like she's constantly blushing in shame, although her guilt is in the eye of the beholder.


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