Hester came across my newsfeed quite awhile ago and I had requested it from Netgalley, then promptly forgot to read it because my to-read pile is rather insane. The premise sounded amazing--bits and pieces of The Scarlet Letter, Puritan New England, and more, so when I finally noticed it again, it ended up being a two night read. Historical fiction is a favorite of mine and Hester covered a time period I don't usually pick.
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 seriously regret not reading this book sooner. Once I started it, I could barely put it down, only the need for sleep finally convinced me to pause for the evening.
Unlike a lot of current historical fiction, there wasn't a dual storyline in Hester detailing the past and the present. While Hester's family history is shared in the book, the majority of the book is Hester herself, taking place during the early 1800s.
The story covers a time period that isn't really covered in many contemporary novels. Reading the early days of New England, the people, the societal expectations, etc, made for an amazingly well done story, and provided a unique background into what could have driven Hawthorne to write The Scarlet Letter. While Hester's character is obviously fictional, the setting really provides so much more insight into the mindsets of the people of New England at the time.