This is the ultimate 3 vs. 4 star test for me. In a rare instance of compromise, I decided to sleep on the review, rather than post right away as is my habit. I finished it late last night and didn’t want to stare at the computer before bed. When I went to bed, it was a 4.
I woke up (heh), thinking it was a 3. And now, as I sit down, nearly 24 hours after finishing it…I’m giving it a 4. With major reservations.
This book reminds me of the longform mea culpa written by Megan Phelps-Roper for The New Yorker a few years ago. Phelps-Roper was part of the infamous Phelps family of Westboro Baptist Church who proclaimed death and destruction upon gays and the military. She was militant until having a spiritual awakening, which she documented for the piece. I appreciated her honesty and I still read through it at least once a year. It’s quite a tale of one’s spiritual journey.
Though it is obviously fictional and portrayed with a different background, it feels similar to that. This is a woman’s spiritual journey away from the fundamentalism in which she was raised (in this case, set against the backdrop of a dystopic United States that’s obviously inspired by The Handmaid’s Tale). A re-telling of The Scarlet Letter, its strength is in how it allows Hannah to grow as a character and mature, even cast against a society that has discarded her for her body.
I cared a lot about Hannah’s tale. I didn’t care as much for the world Jordan put her in. Melachroming is supposed to be this verse’s form of criminal justice but it read like Jordan was trying to do a commentary on how we view different skin negatively (the criminals who are melachromed are discriminated against Jim Crow style). Which…ugh. Didn’t sit well with me. I get the point she was trying to make, and she still had a character acknowledge in a throwaway line that people with black skin still have it bad in this version of America, which is one better than Atwood did in Handmaid’s Tale. Still…ugh.
I also wasn’t a fan of how Hannah’s journey unfolded. It’s like Jordan couldn’t tell how to successfully enmesh Hester Prynne’s story with her own so she keeps putting up roadblocks that aren’t effectively navigated. And of course, there is that scene (won’t spoil, you’ll know when you see it). Unlike a lot of other readers, it didn’t bother me that much, though I was more concerned about the power dynamics of what was happening than the act itself.
But I liked the ending a lot. And I like what Jordan was trying to say about spiritual growth and development, even if I didn’t always like how she said it. So I will give this a weak 4 stars. But I will think about it a lot.