Book Review



  • Author: Laurie Lico Albanese 
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Publication Date: October 4, 2022
  • Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing mew with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

CONTENT WARNING: torture, blood, death of a parent, grief, addiction, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, violence, slavery

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 Edinburgh 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, 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.

A vivid reimagining of the woman who inspired Hester Prynne, the tragic heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and a journey into the enduring legacy of New England’s witchcraft trials.

I had to read The Scarlet Letter in school, but I don’t remember much about it. This book, however, makes much more of an impression. I’m loving the trend towards feminist retellings of classic stories, and rounding out the stories with a more emotional component to them. The marginalized voices of history are given more weight, and I find that I am drawn to these stories much more than the original versions.

In this book, we get to know the woman behind the inspiration for Hester Prynne, and it flips the entire story upside down. Isobel is an immigrant from Scotland, and she has no shortage of history, hopes, and dreams. She’s a tough, smart, talented woman who has been through her share of hardship, and she’s made some poor choices in the past. But they led her to America, which had historically been viewed as a beacon of hope—a country full of opportunity and a way to start over. But when she arrives, she realizes that it’s simply another set of constraints. 

Arriving in Salem, she’s faced with some new challenges. Salem is a town founded on Puritan ideals, and they don’t take kindly to “her kind,” meaning people from Scotland. She manages to make some friends from various social classes, and her path crosses with Nat Hathorne, an aspiring writer. And with her husband away, potentially lost for good, she falls prey to temptation.

I loved getting inside Isobel’s head. She’s open-minded, and isn’t afraid to learn about the things she doesn’t know. She forges relationships, even with people who are different from her, and gets to know her Black neighbors, and their struggles, which are unique from her own, yet she manages to find common ground with them in some ways. She forms her own opinions about topics that she doesn’t agree with, even when her opinions aren’t widely accepted at the time, yet holds true to her values. 

“‘Sometimes you got to act like you are nothing—so long as you remember that it’s a lie. So long as you remember you’re as strong as you believe you are.’”

One aspect that was really intriguing was the portrayal of synesthesia. Isobel has it, and is forced to walk a fine line, since it wasn’t well-understood until more recently, and at those times, it was viewed as something suspicious. It was seen as a sign of a witch, or of madness, at varying times, and both of those were threats to Isobel in her time. And while it was something that Isobel had to keep secret, it was also portrayed as a strength, as far as her creativity. She turned what was viewed as a negative characteristic at the time into a positive, since it helped her create ever more beautiful artwork in her needlework.

Ultimately, this is an overwhelmingly feminist retelling, where people who are pushed down in society work to take back their power in the best ways that they can. The women, the Black people, and the people on the outer edges of society claim their own power, and I was here for it! It was beautiful watching Isobel learn how to harness her strengths, even as she’s questioning what it really means to be an American, in a society that consistently deems her to be an outsider. The story talks about the intersection of gender, class, race, and nationality, as well as the way that women were controlled through the fear of being labeled a witch. The writing itself was beautiful and transported me through time to the earlier days of our country, and it made me realize not only the ways it has changed, but more importantly, the ways it hasn’t. And overall, this was an incredible book.

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