Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese Book Review Read it later

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Jessica R Contributor

Back in my high school days, I did a lot of required reading. One of my all time favorites was The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. So when I saw that Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese is a fictionalized novel about Hawthorne’s inspiration for Hester Prynne, the main character in his infamous novel, I couldn’t wait to read it!

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Isobel Gamble lives in Scotland and comes from generations of women who have been associated with witchcraft. Though the trials and burnings have abated, suspicion of such women have not. When Isobel is a young child, she tells her mother that each letter has its own color, and that spoken words have paint hues in the air. Her mother sees her ancestors’ history in her child and fears for her safety, so she tells Isobel she must forget the colors and tell no one. She trains her daughter in the art of needlework, in which Isobel becomes adept.

As she grows older, Isobel looks to marry and finds a match in a widowed doctor who doesn’t view her as odd, as others do. It seems like a good pairing. Unfortunately, her new husband  succumbs to gambling and poppy addiction, and lands them in a poor house. Through the grace of Isobel’s father, they get out, but must find a way to start over. They set sail for America to begin again. On the journey Isobel saves the life of the captain and finds a friend in him. Once they land in Salem, Massachusetts, the captain helps set her up in a cottage and takes her husband off to sea with him. Shortly after they depart, Isobel discovers her husband has found her secret stash of coins and left her with nothing.

Isobel must make her own way in a city where she has no money, knows no one, and foreigners aren’t welcome. Not to mention she lives in the early 1800s, when women are wholly dependent on their piety and good reputations. She falls back on her almost-magical skill with a needle, embroidering gloves for a local dress shop. Slowly, Isabel finds friends in other outcasts: an Irish girl who serves a local family; her Black neighbor, Mercy, and her two young children. And, she catches the eye of the strange writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The two begin a secretive affair and must live with the consequences of their love and actions.

Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese

Genre: Literary Fiction/ Historical

Isobel leaves Scotland with her poppy-addicted husband in hopes of finding a new life in America. When she arrives though, she must learn to survive on her own and in a foreign place with only the help needle skills.

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Hester is told in beautiful language well suited to the early 1800s. Albanese does an amazing job at painting images of Salem – how it looked, felt, and smelled. Even the emotions of being an outcast made me uncomfortable, as it should.

Contributor Jessican with Hester
Contributor Jessican with Hester!

This is a book about many things, but what stood out to me the most were the ways in which the outcasts–primarily women–quietly banded together. Isobel is faced with trial after trial in Hester. So many times I wondered if the poor woman would ever get a moment of peace or happiness. Every time she seems to find it, something or someone harms her. It was a painful read from that perspective.

However, there are small moments of redemption that bring light to an otherwise dark book. Isobel’s neighbor Mercy, though at first stern and reclusive, became one of my favorite characters of the book. And in a world where nearly every man is seemingly terrible, the sea captain and his travel companions occasionally step onto the page to bring hope to a dark world.

While the premise and story are amazing, I got hung up on the pacing of this book. It is very descriptive, many times to the point of obsession, and it slowed the pace of the book. There are many, many passages that give in depth details of thread, stitches, needlework, etc. It’s obvious Albanese did her homework, but I found myself wanting to skip a lot  of those passages to get to the story. For that reason, I knocked it down a star. Still though, Hester is a beautiful piece of historical fiction and well worth your time.

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Hester book review
Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese
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