Disclaimer: Please note I received a free ARC of this book from Duckworth Books in exchange for my honest review.
In my last Coffee Time Tuesdays column, I admitted I struggle to get into seasonal reads. But because autumn is my favourite season, and my life feels a little more stable this year, I decided to give it another go and dive straight into a truly atmospheric read this month.
I wasn’t disappointed.
Hester, by Laurie Lico Albanese, coming this October from Duckworth Books, imagines who could have been Nathaniel Hawthorne’s original Hester. Albanese, therefore, sets on the quest to tell the story of Isobel Gamble, the fictional lover of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who may have inspired Hester Prynne and who clearly deserves a voice.
But before I dive into why this book was excellent through and through, I need to justify why it’s the perfect autumn read:
- it’s largely set in Salem
- witchcraft is a recurring motif
- our heroine is a descendent of witches, who experiences synesthesia — seen as a sign of madness/magic at the time
- her husband is an alchemist
- the atmosphere is cold and dark, with isolated woods, and lonely bays, cottages and secret streets
If you enjoy an atmospheric read, you’ll adore Hester. But that’s not all there is to it. The book is fast-paced and clever, keeping you guessing and longing for answers throughout. Our protagonist is a smart, fierce young woman who would do anything to pursue her dream — running her own dress shop.
And although it’s painful to witness in how many ways men can limit a woman’s potential, Isobel doesn’t allow the obstacles set by her husband, and the misogynistic Salem society, to stop her.
I loved the idea of exploring who inspired the voiceless adulteress in The Scarlet Letter. Laurie Lico Albanese does a stellar job of depicting how the mere attempt of living her own life can bring a woman to ruin, accused of all the faults she never had.
“I recognised Hester as America’s first historical feminist hero and our original badass single mother. And I became increasingly aware that Hawthorne wrote an entire novel about an adulterous woman defying those who shame her, yet he never gave Hester a voice.” — Laurie Lico Albanese
When Isobel falls in love with Nat, the very same Hawthorne who wrote the classic, it is not him who is judged, oppressed, or chased away from his own home. But it is him who writes the book labelling Hester an adulteress, confirming that he, too, believed in society’s scrutiny of women.
The plot itself is fascinating and endearing, making you fight, love, and suffer with Isobel as the story progresses. But my favourite element of the story was the needlework, which becomes a side character in itself, empowering our heroine and speaking her truth, when she is forced to stay silent.
As someone who loves embroidery, it was comforting to read about Isobel turning to her needle in the face of aversion. I loved the writing, which at times becomes almost poetic, as it describes the passion, strength, and certainty behind Isobel’s craft.
Isobel’s synesthesia is also a side character that helpfully tells us if someone is honest, or defying, or affectionate, and helps describe the characters in deeper, more introspective ways. I’ve never seen synesthesia represented in books, much less in historical fiction, and the way it adds another layer to how we see other characters through the heroine’s eyes, creating a colourful web of intuition, is ingenious.
Hester was a pleasure to read from cover to cover, tucked in bed with the rain tapping at my window. It’s the perfect example of how you can live a full life of joy, love, disappointment, and determination alongside the protagonist, all while being still and silent, nose buried among the pages.
Get your copy of Hester and discover the skilled descendent of witches that could have inspired Hawthorne’s story.
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