Hester: A Novel Book Cover Hester: A Novel
Laurie Lico Albanese
Literary Fiction
St. Martin's Press

A vivid reimagining of the woman who inspired Hester Prynne, the tragic heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and a journey into the enduring legacy of New England's witchcraft trials. Who is the real Hester Prynne? 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 Edinburgh 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.

“No,” I say. “A is a scarlet letter.”

I think we all have some kind of heinous memory of reading a classic novel in high school. For many, myself included, it’s gotta be The Scarlet Letter.  

Hawthorne’s novel is the peak look into a puritanical society. Laurie Albanese’s Hester, is a look into the creation of Hawthorne’s novel.

Part historical fiction, part romance, Hester looks at the “real” Hester Prynn, Isobel Gamble. Isobel has gambled her future on the new world: Salem, Massachusetts. When her husband abandons her upon their arrival, she is left struggling as a needleworker, till she meets young writer, Nationiel Hathorne. 

Haunted by the past of his ancestors who sent innocent people to the gallows, Nationiel is trying to change his name in Salem. *real life sidenote: Hawthorne actually changed his last name in order to separate himself from his family’s history during the Salem witch trials.* 

Isobel is facing her own troubles, as a suddenly single immigrant in a new world. She should be scared. But instead, she views the world not only bravely, but in color. Isobel’s synesthesia makes the world magical, a curse in a society that hates the different. As she and Nationiel begin a forbidden romance, they are left to wonder: how much has really changed since the witch trials? 

Albanese does a superb job at describing synesthesia. She shows the reader what Isobel is seeing incredibly well. You are seeing the world how Isobel sees it: full of unseen color.

Albanese’s book has been named the most anticipated book of the fall by Goodreads, which, in my humble opinion, lives up to the hype. It’s the perfect erasure to the Scarlet Letter trauma of our teens. 

Hester challenges many of the notions portrayed in The Scarlet Letter. Albanese looks at many topics that Hawthorne didn’t touch upon.  I’d like to note here that I don’t think you need to have read the Scarlet Letter in order to enjoy Hester. While Hester references the book and is about the writing of it, you don’t need to crack open your Hawthorne to understand Hester. 

Some trigger warnings include drug use/addiction, talk of slavery and the slave trade, and xenophobia. 

As spooky season begins and we begin consuming mass amounts of witchy media (Hocus Pocus 2, anyone?) Hester is a must read.