When Hannah Payne (note the name's similarity to Hester Prynne) woke, she is in prison and her skin is a bright red--she has been "chromed," the punishment for crimes in the not-to-distant future in which this dystopic novel is set. Wrong-doers serve only brief prison sentences, but they must remain chromed for years--and their color reflects the severity of their crimes. Red is the most serious, denoting murder. Hannah's "murder" was of her unborn child, born from her affair with married pastor Aidan Dale.
Reverend Dale has just become the Secretary of Faith--yes, the wall between church and state has come down, largely due to a pandemic involving a sexually transmitted disease. Most of the country is devoted to conservative Christianity. The effects of climate change have also made life difficult for most Americans.
When Hannah gets out of prison, as a Red she faces serious problems, including a vigilante group that kills Chromes (and of which her brother-in-law is a member). Soon she and a friend are on the run to Canada, helped by an underground organization called the Novembrists.
The concept of chroming is interesting, as are other details of the society into which the United States has devolved. The allusions to The Scarlet Letter are a bit ham-handed but on their own do not compromise the book (there are evidently references to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale as well, but I have never read that book so the references went right past me). The plot, however, is a mess--Hannah careens from crisis to crisis, accumulating experiences that make little sense (particularly the brief lesbian affair). Hillary Jordan is clearly a political novelist, and my views are pretty well aligned with her liberal positions. Unfortunately, she is not as adept a writer as, say, Barbara Kingsolver, and When She Woke's potential is largely unrealized.
She'd crossed into a place where truth, even if it was brutal, was all she had to offer