Sunday, January 22, 2023

Laurie Lico Albanese's Hester imagines an origin story for The Scarlet Letter's heroine

In 1829, seamstress Isobel Gamble, just nineteen, leaves Glasgow with her apothecary husband, Edward, planning to make a new start in America after coming close to ruin due to Edward’s opium addiction. Newly arrived at the harbor of Salem, Massachusetts, Isobel spies a tall man in a flowing black cloak who piques her interest with his proud bearing and air of mystery.

He is Nathaniel Hathorne, an up-and-coming writer seeking to escape his family’s past; his ancestor was John Hathorne, a judge at the notorious witchcraft trials who never repented of his role. (Nathaniel changed the spelling of his surname later.) Isobel herself has a scandalous ancestry. She descends from a 17th-century Scotswoman who confessed to witchcraft. Isobel also conceals her ability to perceive sounds and letters as colors, a phenomenon now called synesthesia.

When Edward leaves immediately on another sea voyage, Isobel must rely on her own enterprise in a town where the Scots, Irish, and Black people share the same low social rung. She and Nat form an easy friendship that develops into an intoxicating mutual enchantment.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1841,
portrait by  Charles Osgood (from the
Peabody Essex Museum)
The name “Hester” is mentioned only toward the end, but if you’re versed in early American literature, you’ll sense where the plot and this relationship will lead. For those who never read The Scarlet Letter in English class, no worries; while the novel imagines its inspiration, it works well independently.

Isobel narrates her tale, with periodic drop-in segments about her ancestor, Isobel Gowdie, and others accused of witchcraft. While they add historical context, their presence isn’t strictly necessary since the main plot has its own strong tension.

Calling a historical novel a “richly woven tapestry” has become a cliché, yet Hester fits this phrase much better than most. Its pages are awash with color, through the visual effects of Isobel’s synesthesia and in descriptions of her swift, careful embroidery – a beautiful skill that saves her life more than once. (As a former cross-stitcher, reading Hester left me wanting to pick up a needle, thread, and fabric again.)

Salem itself is a most intriguing place full of contrasts: cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic, Puritan-influenced, unwelcoming to outsiders, and with a shameful history that weighs on the descendants of  the accused and their accusers from 1692. Within the book, you’ll find the theme of women’s supportive networks, as well as the repercussions when they fail. Isobel’s closest neighbor is a free Black woman, the brusque Mercy, who also seems to be hiding something. This subplot grows more intense over the course of the book. Secrets may be a burden, but they’re also essential for survival in this provocative and haunting story.

Hester was published by St. Martin's Press in October 2022. I read it from Edelweiss; my library also has a copy in the Best Sellers collection.

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