BookBrowse Reviews When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

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When She Woke

A Novel

by Hillary Jordan

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan X
When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2011, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2012, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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A Hawthorne-esque, dystopian novel in which a woman charged with murdering her unborn child fights to protect the identity of the man she loves

Hillary Jordan's When She Woke takes place in a not-too-distant United States where life is at a premium, valued above a woman's right to choose whether or not to continue her pregnancy. The premise is eerily believable; one can easily envision the circumstances under which abortions become illegal in the future. When She Woke does what good dystopian literature should: demonstrate where a minor alteration or two in current policies can lead if taken to extremes. The novel also recalls the country's Puritanical past when punishment included public shaming by the community, and Jordan's vision of that humiliation is original and riveting. Much of the plot's appeal is that it all seems so possible; it requires very little imagination to believe that the events depicted could come to pass without much current political or social change.

Before continuing I'd like to say unequivocally that I did like When She Woke very much. I absolutely devoured it; I eagerly turned the pages, stayed up late reading it, and finished it in record time because I wanted to know what happened next. In spite of its basis in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, the plot is imaginative and unpredictable. The heroine constantly moves from one harrowing situation to the next, and her development from someone of blind faith and obedience to a person of very deep spirituality is convincing and affecting.

But this review would be disingenuous if I didn't also mention that the book's flaws - and there are many - left me feeling somewhat dissatisfied. Jordan's biggest failing is that she doesn't manage to conjure up the feeling of a dystopian world. She spends almost no narrative describing the ways in which the United States of her novel is different than that of today, and consequently I felt like I was simply reading about an especially conservative community, not a radically different country. In an effort to keep the story moving, the author jettisoned a lot of description that would have added much-needed depth. The book isn't dark enough, there's not enough sense of menace, and the heroine gets out of danger too quickly and easily for tension to mount adequately.

Also, attempts to tie the plot to The Scarlet Letter are weak and at times feel forced. Hannah Payne's situation and choices are so markedly different than Hester Prynne's that the parallels don't really work. Hawthorne's message is subtle and prompts reflection; by the book's end, readers are comparing the actions of Hester's community to their own, leading them to contemplate their definitions of right and wrong. Jordan, however, is preaching to the choir. Her message is so overt and unambiguous that those who agree with it won't need to spend time thinking about it, while those who don't will be unable to develop any sympathy for the heroine.

In short, When She Woke is a fast and engaging read, and ideally suited for someone looking for an entertaining book requiring little thought. It's popcorn, not steak: enjoyable and addictive, but in the long run not very filling.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in November 2011, and has been updated for the September 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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