Review: Hester, by Laurie Lico Albanese
St. Martin’s, 2022. 336 pp. $28
In 1829, nineteen-year-old Isobel Gamble emigrates from Scotland to Salem, Massachusetts, partly because neither she nor her apothecary husband, Edward, have prospered, but also for a reason she must hide. Edward, who at first gave young Isobel the impression of a kind, thoughtful husband, has turned into a selfish tyrant, rather too fond of certain drug preparations and further addicted to get-rich-quick schemes. As a lover, he has the style of a bull elephant, though maybe I slight that species in saying so.
Serving as the ship’s doctor on the passage to Salem, he signs on again in that capacity for a respectable merchant captain, leaving his bride to fend for herself. He remains on shore long enough to arrange her living conditions without consulting her and will brook no discussion; he also issues strict orders that hamstring her efforts to get along in his absence.
Said absence, as you may have guessed, leaves Isobel with mixed feelings. She worries how she’ll cope, knowing nobody in Salem, which seems a closed, exclusive society, especially mistrustful of immigrants. Moreover, she’s got almost no resources save her nimble fingers and a needle, and seamstresses are a penny a dozen. Potential employers, who depend on the carriage trade, are as snobby as their customers and exact draconian terms of service against which Isobel has no recourse.
There’s yet another secret to hide. Isobel possesses the rare cognitive ability to see letters and words as colors, which lends her embroidery a singular flair. But this phenomenon, known today as synesthesia, frightens her, because the world calls it unnatural and evil; indeed, the female ancestor who passed it on was accused of witchcraft. Consequently, as a child, Isobel was taught never to reveal her gift.
I didn’t want to fall into the Devil’s snare. I didn’t want to be put in an asylum or hanged from the gallows. I wanted to be a dressmaker, to live in a city and have a shop and embroider dresses with flowers and birds. I loved the needle and thread; they let me put my visions into cloth in a way that no one questioned, in a way that brought me praise. They let me keep my secrets in plain sight, where I prayed they would hurt no one, least of all myself.
Well, you say, she’s in Salem now, and we all know what happened there. Not only that, she meets Nathaniel Hathorne, whose ancestor was an unrepentant judge at those infamous trials. That history has haunted the up-and-coming writer so deeply he’ll later add a w to his name, hoping to differentiate himself from his predecessor. And any novel titled Hester evokes the heroine of The Scarlet Letter.
Accordingly, I don’t have to tell you that the gloomy Nat, who feels like an outcast, and the desperate, lonely Isobel, who is one, bond instantly. Without putting too fine a point on it, and at the risk of repeating the publicity copy, the two bewitch each other. And I might not have to tell you that Isobel sees the letter A as red, or that her skill with a needle, as well as her passionate nature, impresses Hathorne.
Albanese writes beautifully, and Hester has much going for it, despite several events whose literary predictability is a given. That’s because Edward’s pending return, Isobel’s ambivalence about it, and the price she’ll pay if anyone discovers her with Hathorne throw plenty of fuel on the fire. So do the two principals, who talk past each other, quarrel, and withhold the way lovers do.
A couple minor characters stand out too, notably one employer who pays Isobel a pittance and threatens to blacklist her if she tries to get more money elsewhere. Black characters and the slavery theme they embody feel shoehorned in, at first, but they make sense eventually. Albanese pulls no punches with either the major or minor characters, who suffer setbacks, and the reader senses long before Isobel does that her author swain is more complicated than she believed.
I could have done without the brief, italicized backstory chapters about Isobel’s alleged witch ancestor, which I think add nothing and try to wrap the theme in a pretty bow. We’ve already got Salem, where they still talk about witchcraft in 1829 and ostracize women who so much as appear to test societal constraints—though those with enough money get away with it, which makes the point clear enough. We also have Hathorne, who walks around with the guilt his forbear never admitted. Enough said.
But Hester’s worth your time, whether or not you’ve read The Scarlet Letter, and I recommend it.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review, where this post appeared in shorter, different form.