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For anyone who has read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s THE SCARLET LETTER and come away with a passionate, protective love for Hester Prynne, author Laurie Lico Albanese has penned the perfect prequel/reimagining of this tragic heroine and the woman who may have served as Hawthorne’s inspiration for her.

Isobel Gamble is a talented seamstress when she meets her eventual husband, Edward, a widowed apothecary a decade her senior. The descendant of a woman tried in Scotland as a witch, Isobel has been taught that women’s secrets --- of magic, of their bodies and of their hearts --- have long legacies in her family history and that her work is just as much about helping other women guard their own secrets as it is about stitching a clean hem. But Isobel has a very particular kind of secret: she sees colors and words when she hears the voices of the people around her. “[M]y mother’s voice a sapphire stream flecked with emeralds, my father’s a soft caramel…. I didn’t know my colors were unusual and so I never thought to speak of them, just as I never remarked on the air,” Isobel recalls.

We would now label Isobel’s magical colors as synesthesia, the experience of multiple sensory responses when only one sense has been stimulated. But without the explanation of science, it is easy to see why Isobel’s mother would encourage her to hide this trait, especially given the family’s connection to a condemned witch. Like many women in her era and of her age, Isobel knows that a husband can protect her from being found out: his income can keep her at home, his name can carry her reputation, and maybe his love can bolster her and help her feel less unusual.

"Perfect for lovers of classics, devourers of historical fiction, and even fans of forgotten feminist histories, HESTER is a standout work from an immensely talented author."

Of course, this is not the case with Isobel. While Edward is initially kind and doting, his work leads him into dangerous obsessions with alchemy, mystical roots and herbs used by “savages” to cure any number of diseases. Even worse, he has access to poppy and opium when he suffers an injury to his leg. Before long, his own plundering of his shop leaves him and Isobel in the poor house. Isobel’s father buys their freedom, but it comes at a price: they will never again be welcome in their village, where everyone knows of Edward’s misdeeds. Instead they must set course for America and a new start. Ambitious and shrewd, Isobel sees an opportunity to become a patternmaker, dressmaker and seamstress, a woman who supports her household along with her husband. But Edward has other ideas.

When the Gambles arrive in Salem, Isobel is assaulted by the sights, smells and colors around her. Salem seems historic yet new, sophisticated yet fresh. Although she has heard of the witch trials, she feels certain that a land of such promise and possibility cannot still be weighed down by its past. Or can it? When Edward takes off for the sea in search of riches and medical miracles, Isobel is once again left penniless and alone…but this time she refuses to bend. While looking for work as a seamstress, she makes the acquaintance of Nathaniel Hawthorne, a handsome and brooding young man who, like her, seems to stand apart from the Salem crowd --- so new, yet so married to their traditions and routines.

As a newcomer to the country, Isobel is able to observe and draw conclusions about details to which others are often blind. She notes that while the country pretends to have washed their hands of the Salem witch trials, every memorial to the tragedy seems hell-bent on maintaining that there were once witches in the historic town. While slavery has already become illegal in the northern city, dressmakers still source their cotton from plantations known to abuse slaves; the same goes for bakers and their sugar. As a coastal city, Salem has the potential for so much growth and progression, yet it seems tied to its idiosyncrasies: shame and celebration, history and change, feminism and the fear of witchcraft.

Hawthorne, plagued by his guilt for his family’s role in the trials, seems like a kindred spirit, but he too is a man. As long as there have been women, there have been men trying to own them, crying “witchcraft!” “adulteress!” and “whore!” Just as she takes ownership of her womanhood, her magic and her future, Isobel is forced to reckon with the truth about who gets to belong in America, who is allowed to tell their stories, and what it means to be accused of the mere crime of being a woman in a male-dominated world.

Sensuous, gorgeously written and meticulously researched, HESTER is not only the ideal companion read to Hawthorne’s classic, it is an expertly crafted work of historical fiction in its own right. Albanese has perfectly absorbed the tone and spirit of her source material, but more than that, she has built her own stunning framework to cast THE SCARLET LETTER into the future and into the hands of a whole new generation of readers. But don’t let the connection scare you. Neither a textbook nor a reimagining of the original, it’s something entirely new.

With conscientious and diligent research into the witch trials, the slave trade, the work of a seamstress, and life in early 19th-century America, Albanese has created a rich, immersive window into life as a newly arrived American during one of the more tumultuous and change-driven periods of American history. There are sharp, searing takedowns of misogyny, racism and classism woven throughout, but the viewpoints and ideologies never feel anachronistic, a difficult balance to achieve for even the most experienced authors. Albanese has done her due diligence and far more, creating a work that not only honors its source but transcends it.

Perfect for lovers of classics, devourers of historical fiction, and even fans of forgotten feminist histories, HESTER is a standout work from an immensely talented author.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on October 14, 2022

by Laurie Lico Albanese