Fiction, Historical

Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese

Hester was sent to me while still in the manuscript stage last October. It’s been a very long time since I read The Scarlet Letter, but given my love of the Emma-Stone-led Easy A, I figured I could do with reading another adaptation.

Synopsis

From the publisher marketing:
Isobel Gamble is a young seamstress carrying generations of secrets when she sets sail from Scotland in the early 1800s with her husband, Edward. An apothecary who has fallen under the spell of opium, his pile of debts have forced them to flee Glasgow for a fresh start in the New World. But only days after they’ve arrived in Salem, Edward abruptly joins a departing ship as a medic–leaving Isobel penniless and alone in a strange country, forced to make her way by any means possible.

When she meets a young Nathaniel Hawthorne, the two are instantly drawn to each other: he is a man haunted by his ancestors, who sent innocent women to the gallows–while she is an unusually gifted needleworker, troubled by her own strange talents. As the weeks pass and Edward’s safe return grows increasingly unlikely, Nathaniel and Isobel grow closer and closer. Together, they are a muse and a dark storyteller; the enchanter and the enchanted. But which is which?

In this sensuous and hypnotizing tale, a young immigrant woman grapples with our country’s complicated past, and learns that America’s ideas of freedom and liberty often fall short of their promise. Interwoven with Isobel and Nathaniel’s story is a vivid interrogation of who gets to be a real American in the first half of the 19th century, a depiction of the early days of the Underground Railroad in New England, and atmospheric interstitials that capture the long history of unusual women being accused of witchcraft. Meticulously researched yet evocatively imagined, Laurie Lico Albanese’s Hester is a timeless tale of art, ambition, and desire that examines the roots of female creative power and the men who try to shut it down.

“The best dresses offer secrets but no surprises,” Aileen said when we were alone. “Little pockets and camouflage for flaws with no hint of what’s hidden beneath the flare of a bell sleeve, the bones of a corset, or the inset of a shorting.”

Review

Hester is an interesting book and it is certainly a fascinating look at The Scarlet Letter. While Hawthorne was clearly a product of his own time and circumstances, in writing about the inspiration for Hester, Laurie Lico Albanese infuses her Isobel with what we 21st century women would think of as modern day feminist thought and ideas but that I’m sure were not entirely out of place in the early 19th century. And unlike many recent post-#MeToo feminist books, this one does not devolve into man-hating. There are both male and female characters that are less than desirable and there are quite a few feminist-friendly men.

A hundred- and fifty-years post-witch trials, Salem is still an unfriendly place to women who don’t fit the norm, whose families haven’t been well established for generations. A feeling of otherness that just about any woman can relate to, from living in a small new town to having interests and ideas that go against the societal flow, is, at times, crushing in our heroine Isobel’s Salem. 

With prose as colorful as the words and feelings Isobel experiences herself, Albanese weaves together a new tale with women’s courage and perseverance squarely at its heart. It’s written in first person, which I don’t love, but having a narrow focus on Isobel’s experience certainly wasn’t a bad thing. It did, however, mean that we didn’t always see everything going on in the village as I believe Laurie intended us to. 

The pacing is a bit strange at times. We don’t get to see too much outside of Isobel’s narrow view and obsession with Nat (Nathaniel Hawthorne) which means that when other characters suffer from tragedy, it just doesn’t land the same way. I found myself shrugging and not caring about characters that I think I would have been more invested in had we been able to step outside of Isobel.

The ending also comes around quite abruptly and out of left field. There was certainly a need to change our characters’ circumstances, but it all felt a bit forced and contrived. Overall it was enjoyable, but I think would have benefited from a wider perspective in writing than just that of Isobel.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through BookShop or your local independent, in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon.

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