Hester: A Novel by Laurie Lico Albanese #NetGalley #ARCReview #BookReview #NathanielHawthorne #TheScarletLetter

“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.”

Isobel is a woman with kinesthesia, who sees colors associated with people and words. She’s been taught to keep this ability secret because the original Isobel was tried as a witch a hundred years prior. Luckily, she escaped and had descendants who also shared this gift. The Isobel of the book emigrates from Scotland to Massachusetts in the mid 1810’s, far removed from the days of the Salem Witch Trials, but not in sentiment.

This book is so interesting, yet it’s hard to describe. It’s sort of historical fiction, sort of fantasy, too. Isobel meets the author Nathanial Hawthorne, best known today as the author of The Scarlet Letter. Isobel is seen as the inspiration of Hester Prynne, right down to her skill as a seamstress. I’ve personally never read Hawthorne so I can’t say how close the author gets to his subject, but it’s an engaging tale even without having read the classic.

I do have to say that the mood I felt while reading Hester (Amazon) reminded me very much of Magic Lessons (Practical Magic #0.1) by Alice Hoffman because of the setting and accusations of witchcraft and Puritan beliefs. But that’s the only similarity. Isobel isn’t a witch, she’s an embroiderer, but she’s also a foreigner, which naturally begs suspicion from the locals. She’s befriended by a free black woman with two young kids, and I thought the author did a good job explaining how Massachusetts was a free state, yet slave hunters were allowed there to track down people and return them to the south. Isobel reads and sees things and has many questions, and an early look at the Underground Railroad is shown to both her and the reader.

Because it’s so rare now, I had a hard time imagining the intricate embroidery described, but I sure had a great time trying! My mother, aunt and grandmother were skilled with the needle, a talent I did not inherit.

I have been very lucky lately to read some awesome ARCs, and this is another one. Very engaging, entertaining, I just didn’t want to put it down. Highly recommended!

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