Review of The Invisible Hour by Alice Hoffman
I was taken with the first half of this book--a rural cult, a teen mother, a strong female protagonist in an impossible situation, looking for answers. But I felt unmoored by the enormous shift into time travel and its inspiration within the story: a passionate obsession with Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Self-pity from a man was something she could not abide, not when she had a woman's issues to deal with.
The Invisible Hour begins with the story of Ivy, a feisty young woman who becomes pregnant, is threatened with the forcible adoption of her baby, and becomes a runaway.
She flees to the embrace of the Community, a group of people living off the grid in rural western Massachusetts who preach love, share belongings, farm and harvest their own food, take collective care of children--and, Ivy soon finds out as her spirit is soon broken, endure severe punishment for asking questions or diverting from the wishes of the group's charismatic leader, Joel. (Joel as the bad guy in the story seems without redemption; he's petty, paranoid, vindictive, and determined to wreak havoc. There aren't gray areas for the reader to explore where he's concerned; revenge fantasies are the logical next step.)
By the time she realizes her mistake in becoming entangled with the group, she feels it's too late to escape.
It wasn't so hard not to show what you really felt if you practiced, if you closed your eyes and imagined that your daughter was with you even when she was somewhere else, if you let the wind rise all around you, if you only heard the songs of the sparrows in the forest, a place so dark it was easy to get lost even in broad daylight, even if your eyes were open.
As Ivy's daughter Mia--who grows up in the oppressive Community, secretly and voraciously reading as a lifeline of sorts at the local library--becomes desperate to break with the group, she stumbles upon The Scarlet Letter--which is, as all books are, forbidden within the cult. The two-hundred-old story speaks to her so completely, it feels like it might just save her: "Sometimes when you read a book it's as if you were reading the story of your own life. That was what was happened to me. I woke up when I read the first page. I saw who I was and who I could be."
I didn't have anything close to that reaction upon first readingThe Scarlet Letter, but Mia is her own person (character) in a complicated situation, desperate for connection, and okay, I was taking Mia's word for it at this point.
But the story of The Invisible Hour makes a massive shift halfway through, when--spoiler--Mia travels back in time! And I love a time-travel story!
Mia is compelled and able to travel through time because of the power of her determination to meet her heartthrob....Nathaniel Hawthorne. Nathaniel Hawthorne? "I'm in love with my favorite author," she says. Her crush is soon clarified as an all-systems-go teen-girl, can't-resist-him, can't-imagine-life-without-him swirl of emotions and passion. But I didn't really understand why.
Mia reads secretly but endlessly and indiscriminately throughout her childhood. I didn't grasp why she would fixate so completely on this book and this man as her literal saviors.
The Scarlet Letter explores humanity's sins and judgments and offers moral lessons--I could see her responding to those, particularly because of her own origin story and her mother's predicament of unwed pregnancy and parental judgment. And Hawthorne allows for a female character's passion and independence, although these were condemned by the society he writes about.
"Real life is unbelievable. Souls are snatched away from us, flesh and blood turn to dust, people you love betray you, men go to war over nothing. It's all preposterous. That's why we have novels. To make sense out of things."
But The Scarlet Letter? Really? And Nathaniel Hawthorne, an irresistible and unshakeable love interest because of the gorgeousness of his prose? I found myself wanting more justification so I could believe in all of it.
And if there were such obsession and an instant, all-encompassing love, would Mia repeatedly risk upending her beloved Hawthorne's future as she does in The Invisible Hour, threatening even his eventual writing of The Scarlet Letter? "Now that she was before him, Mia wondered if it might be a mistake to tell him anything about his future," the book explains. (Mia has never heard of the butterfly effect, but honestly! Do not tell Nathaniel Hawthorne his future, Mia!) She realizes that altering his life path and writing is a very real danger, yet she continues to insert herself into his path and his life.
I was intrigued by the first half of the book--cult life, the daring attempt to escape it, the haven found in books, and, ultimately, Mia's peaceful second chapter of life and shift in her family circumstances.
I generally love time-travel novels, but I didn't feel engaged by the time-travel situation or feel invested in Mia's inspiration and reasoning for venturing into the past.
I received a prepublication edition of this book courtesy of Atria Books and NetGalley.
Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?
Alice Hoffman is also the author of The World That We Knew and over thirty other books.
Another book with a character based upon Nathaniel Hawthorne--although the author treats him very differently as a character--is the historical fiction novel Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese.