WHO IS THE REAL HESTER PRYNNE?
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.
What’s it about (in a nutshell):
Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese is an imaginative look at the person who inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and how that story came to be.
Initial Expectations (before beginning the book):
I have gotten from the title, cover, and blurb that this is a The Scarlet Letter retelling from Hester Prynne’s perspective. I am intrigued because I’ve always felt I needed to know Hester’s side of the story.
Actual Reading Experience:
I absolutely love the authentic feel of this story. The premise is that a particular woman in Hawthorn’s life was his inspiration for Hester Prynne’s character in The Scarlet Letter. It felt authentic and not like a fictional account. From the period to the relationship and the resulting novel, suspending disbelief was so very easy.
I also enjoyed the women’s empowerment angle that runs throughout the story. I love to see the strengths of women all through the ages, especially the periods when it didn’t seem like women had any power.
The writing is beautiful and vivid, bewitching the reader into believing the story as truth rather than fiction. And the inclusion of Grapheme-Color Synesthesia was particularly ingenious as it worked in the story in many ways. This is a neurological phenomenon of seeing letters and numbers in particular colors. I know someone who experiences this phenomenon and love how it is handled in this story.
Isobel is a woman who can see colors associated with words, letters, and numbers – spoken or written. She is the descendant of Isobel Gowdy, who was once accused of being a witch. She is married to a man who struggles with addiction and is gone for long stretches of time. All she wants is to know love like she sees others experiencing.
All the characters are complex and elicit strong emotions in the reader. Nathaniel Hawthorn is one of these characters, and Albanese paints a very intriguing picture of the author.
Narration & Pacing:
The story is told in the first person from Isobel’s perspective. I love this personal style of telling a very personal, almost diary-like story. Isabel tells the reader the most intimate details of her life, bringing the story to life and making it feel as authentic.
The pacing is much as I have found with many works of historical fiction – a bit slow and leisurely with only sporadic action episodes to speed up the pace. I find it hard to read at a leisurely pace, so this was problematic for me, and I struggled to keep my focus as I proceeded through the tale.
The setting is Salem, Massachusetts, in the early 1800s. The witch trials, though an event well in the past, still impact decisions made by people, particularly women, regarding how to act and what to say.
Read it if you like:
- Historical Fiction
- Women Empowerment stories
- Stories set in the early 1800s
- Character-driven Stories
- Originality: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
- Writing Quality: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
- Pace: ⭐⭐💫
- Character Development: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
- ‘Couldn’t Put It Down’-ness: ⭐
- Use of Setting: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐