I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
This post contains affiliate links you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese
Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld
Length: 9 hours 52 minutes
Published by St. Martin's Publishing Group on October 4, 2022
Genres: Fiction / Historical / General, Fiction / Literary, Fiction / Women
Format: ARC, Audiobook
Buy on Amazon, Buy on Bookshop
Named a Most Anticipated Book for Fall by Goodreads • Washington Post • New York Post • BuzzFeed • PopSugar • Business Insider • An October Indie Next List Pick • An October LibraryReads Pick
"A hauntingly beautiful––and imagined––origin story to The Scarlet Letter." ––People
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.
As an English teacher, I could not resist checking out Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese. My first encounter with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter was as a high school English student. While my teacher hammered away at all of the symbolism in the book, I was really wondering about how Hester was surviving around all of these low down dogs calling themselves her man in public and private (or not). The preacher was the worst! But so was her husband lurking around town like a creep.
The Woman Who Inspired Hester
Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese tells the story of Isobel and her ancestors intermittently throughout the novel. Isobel’s ancestor of the same name was accused of being a witch in Scotland, but escaped the torture and ran away which is why Isobel exists today. Isobel is the woman that Albanese crafts the novel around as being the one who inspired the character of Hester in The Scarlett Letter.
You can quickly see the parallels between the two women. But Isobel is different, she can see colors everywhere and she is a keen businesswoman who figures out how to survive when her no-good husband leaves on a ship with her money. She is a beautiful, young redheaded Scottish woman who also has to be careful to abide by the rules of society and hide her gifts.
I am a big fan of Isobel because she is such a strong female protagonist. It’s easy to forget that she is only 19 because she deals with being abandoned by her husband and being left destitute like a pro. She knows her skills, she knows her own worth and she blinks back the tears quickly and moves onto to surviving and making a living for herself.
Albanese does an excellent job of bringing in the historical context of the time period to the novel. Doing so battles the nostalgic amnesia and erasure that haunts the majority of classic literature. The classics will often have you thinking that society was homogenous and that any world in the book is set in a bubble that can’t see the rest of the world. Hester brings up the fact that, of course there were Black people living in Salem. It also brings up the impact of slavery regardless of where it is currently outlawed in the country. The wives of ship captains had to get the money for their expensive dresses from somewhere. The money didn’t disappear just because their husbands stopped participating in the slave trade. No, it got reinvested and wealth was built with blood money. Black people living in Salem still suffer from the terror of runaway slave laws too.
As a Scotswoman, who is on the outskirts of society, she pays attention to these contradictions in society. She listens and watches as wealthy wives say they are against slavery because it is popular to say it now that slavery is not allowed in Massachusetts, but turn beet read when asked if their husbands used to be slavers. Salem is a coastal town, why wouldn’t the impact of slavery be visible in societal wealth and decision making? Isobel’s friendship with Mercy, a Black woman, leverages some important storytelling woven in with history.
Historical Figures & Sex
Soooooo, I’m going to warn you. Spoiler Alert… stop reading right now if you want to remain innocent.
Nathaniel Hawthorne is in this book having sex y’all. I’m not sure how I feel about it since he was a real person whose book I read in high school. My feelings so far are: 😳😟 I mean…it just wasn’t on my bingo card for 2022. But Isobel calls him Nat. So I just used that to disassociate.
I read this book via audiobook and loved it. The narrator did an awesome job with the Scottish accent and it kept me fully immersed in the story. I would definitely recommend it. I felt the narrator lent to the authenticity of Isobel’s character.
I thought this was a very intriguing novel of historical fiction. There are so many layers of female empowerment, immigration, the effects of slavery on society and more that I might even do a re-read to try and capture more from it. Beautiful writing, great story, awesome characters!