• The Bossy Bookworm

Review of Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese

Updated: Oct 24

Hester is richly imagined historical fiction with connections to themes and characters from The Scarlet Letter. It's magical and intriguing, and I loved it.

They say witch, but what do they mean?... Witch is a reason to kill you; witch might be someone to heal you; witch can be the Devil, or witch can be a woman so beautiful she makes you lose your sense. They've got so many ways of calling you a witch, they just change it to how it suits them.

In Hester: A Novel, Laurie Lico Albanese reimagines the woman who inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne's Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter as recent Scottish immigrant Isobel Gamble.

Talented needleworker Isobel and her husband leave Scotland for America in the early 1800s. But when her addict of a husband abruptly leaves her penniless and alone, jumping on a ship departing Massachusetts shortly after they arrive, Isobel is desperate and must make her way in an unfamiliar country all alone.

As she hides the vivid colors she has always seen associated with letters, voices, and emotions--which she has always been told to ignore, for fear of being branded a witch like her great grandmother, also named Isobel--she encounters Nathaniel Hathorne, a romantic, aspiring author who is struggling to cope with his family's dark legacy of having sent suspected witches to the gallows in generations past. The two enchant each other within an unconventional, unacceptable relationship and a swirl of irresistible connection.

The heart-healing hawthorn flower stitched upon a white handkerchief with a tiny red A, for Abington.

Keep your powers hidden and use them when it's your time.

Race issues are explored through Isobel's lifesaving Black neighbors--who share resources, offer advice, and otherwise keep to themselves--and their mysterious goings-on, which Isobel suspects may be related to the runaway slaves she hears tell of in town.

Often in Albanese's Salem, classes who are underestimated or dismissed may be achieving hidden changes in the community, while families who are upheld as upper-crust may be involved in darkness and corruption.

What's true is often hidden from sight--religious fervor disguises cruelty, dark desires hide behind a mask of conformity.

What else is slipping through the spaces that I don't see? What other dark secrets is the city hiding?

Isobel's needlework and the colors she sees in the world are captivatingly described, and the tenuous situation for a woman at the time without a man in the household is conveyed in chilling fashion. I loved the connections to The Scarlet Letter and the book within a book, the witchy focus, the renegade feminism, and the details of life at the time.

I received a prepublication copy of this book courtesy of St. Martin's Press and NetGalley.

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

Laurie Lico Albanese is also the author of Stolen Beauty.

If you're interested in books about witches, you might like the books on the Greedy Reading Lists Six Wonderfully Witchy Stories and Six More Wonderfully Witchy Stories to Charm You.