Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese: historical fiction
Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publish Date Oct 4, 2022; 336 pages
Thanks to #netgalley and #stmartinspress for this advance copy of #hester. The opinions are my own.
First Sentence: "Salem was meant to be a new beginning, a place where the sharp scent of cinnamon and tea perfumed the air with hope; a place where the colors could be safe and alive in me."
Main Characters: Isobel Gowdie Gamble; Mercy, a black neighbor; Nat Hathorne, an aspiring author; Edward Gamble, her husband
The bare bones of the plot don't do the story justice. Young Isobel is an independent, talented seamstress with big dreams. Marrying an older man who wants her to stay home and be the 'wife' was difficult and when he developed an addiction to alcohol and "the poppy", it is even harder for her. However, he soon runs into trouble in Scotland and they have to flee to the US. Isobel ends up abandoned in Salem and in order to survive, she falls back on her extraordinary sewing skills.
Set in 1800s Salem, it feels very evocative of the time which is years after the witch trials but the suspicion of witches and enchantments still pervades society. Isobel's needlework is the thread that ties this story together (see what I did there?). She is surrounded by color - she sees color in people's words and emotions, letters have color to her, and she's taught from childhood to hide that trait because people think it's a witch characteristic. What she has is synesthesia. It was so interesting to read how it affected her and, of course, they didn't have a diagnosis for it then, so it makes sense that people would see it as a sign of witchery. Anything out of the ordinary was hugely suspect, especially in a woman. So, alone in Salem, a town that isn't quite over their belief and ostracism of witches, she continues to hide her secret but lets her love of color show in her needlework. Her embroidery is detailed and tells stories - from her childhood to her love affair to her livelihood.
Her love affair. With her husband missing at sea, she allows her attraction to Nat Hathorne to flourish and they become lovers. When that affair turns to heartbreak, her closest friends, Mercy and Nell, help her through it. The female friendships are strong and supportive and help move the story forward. I enjoy a story where women encourage each other and help strengthen each other through every era of history.
You might sense a familiarity in the character Nat Hathorne. The man that Isobel falls in love with later writes a novel called The Scarlet Letter and uses the pen name Nathaniel Hawthorne. His novel is based on their love affair and the scarlet A that Isobel always hid within her needlework. Hester? The main character in The Scarlet Letter, inspired by Isobel Gamble. Not exactly a retelling, but a background exploration if you will.
Isobel's embroidery is such a great element to the story and the way it's represented is beautiful and inspiring. Her dreams to have her own dress shop get buried & revived; she becomes happily in love, then brokenhearted; she is doomed, then resurrected; she is alone and lonely, then makes some dear friends; she is timid, but learns to stand up for herself and her beliefs. It's a story of emotional ups and downs as we grow up and mature with Isobel.
This very imaginative tale is an excellent read. There's a touch of mysticism, some romance, friendship and lots of historical ground covered yet I never lost track of what was happening or who a character was. I loved the authenticity of the town and the characters, from the snooty shop owner to Mercy, the black woman who reluctantly befriends Isobel. I loved the nod to helping escaping slaves and Isobel's growing realization at the similarity of her treatment as "less than" because of her Scottish accent, and their treatment as less than human.
There's a lot of depth and character growth in this story. I highly recommend Hester when you're looking for some historical fiction that doesn't revolve around WWII.
This is 2/54 in my COYER fall challenge hosted by Because Reading and I'll be sharing at #histficreadingchallenge hosted by The Intrepid Reader.