Sunday, January 1, 2023

Review: Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese

Genre: Historical Fiction
Published: October 4, 2022
Pages: 326


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.

I received a copy of this book through Netgalley. This is my honest review.

If it's not obvious to you by the title, this is a Scarlet Letter retelling. I've read The Scarlet Letter twice in my life. The first time I really enjoyed it. The second time, not so much, but in the book's defense that likely had more to do with the fact that the second reading was for class and I was being told how fast to read it. In spite of that unpleasant second read, I was really excited to dive into this book based on the title alone (because I pretty much never read the book synopsis myself). 

One of the things I liked about this book is how it showed the ways neurodivergence was very likely treated hundreds of years ago. Things that we at least sort of understand today, and I think I actually finally grasp how synesthesia works from being in Isobel's shoes for this story, could be terrifying back then. At first I thought Isobel's mother's reaction was severe, considering the fact that she was just a child stitching in pretty colors, but as the story progressed, my opinion started to shift. 

There were several times this book straight up pissed me off. I'm talking looking like a lunatic because I'm yelling at people who don't exist angry. Existing as a woman must have been so infuriating back then. I honestly wonder why women didn't rise up sooner for more rights. I am glad I don't face those levels of injustice simply because I was born with a vagina. 

I was absolutely sucked into this story wanting all the good things for Isobel. My heart soared every time something good happened for her, and I seethed every time she was taken advantage of. I'm not sure when the last time I felt that invested in a character was. 

Because we are so close to the end of the year and I've read so few novels, I can pretty confidently say that this is my favorite book I read in 2022. Overall I give it 4.9 out of 5 stars. - Katie 

Check out my book club discussion questions here.

Laurie Lico Albanese is an award-winning novelist and journalist. HESTER is an Audible Best Book of 2022, an IndieNext and Canadian and American Librarians October 2022 selection, a Gillian Flynn Best Books of Fall 2022, a Book of the Month club selection, and a finalist in the Goodreads Best Books of the Year. Laurie’s novel STOLEN BEAUTY was praised by the Wall Street Journal as “a work of art itself.”

Laurie is a recipient of a Catherine R. Dodge Foundation Visiting Fellowship to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, a Hadassah-Brandeis Research Award, and a New Jersey State Council of the Arts Fellowship in Fiction Writing. She’s taught literature and writing workshops at Wager College, Stonecoast Summer Writing Program at the University of Southern Maine where she earned her MFA, and elsewhere. Laurie’s novels have been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese and soon, Croatian. She lives with her husband and rescue dogs in New Jersey, where they raised their two grown children.

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