Monday, January 23, 2023

Book Review: Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese

Pages: 332
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: October 4, 2022
Publisher: St. Martin's
Source: Publisher for review
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Goodreads says, "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, 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. 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."

It's the early 1800s and Isobel Gamble, a talented needleworker, originally from Scotland, and is now living in Salem, Massachusetts. She made the trek along with her husband, Edward, an apothecary. Isobel comes from a long line of "witches," but obviously she keeps this, along with her synesthesia, a secret. Isobel can see colors when she hears sounds or sees letter; obviously this isn't something she should make known, especially when her ancestor and namesake, Isobel Gowdie, is considered the "Queen of the Witches." Things seem to be ok, until her husband becomes reliant on opium and they end up in financial ruin. She hopes that Salem will bring a fresh start, but once she gets settled there Edward decides to board a ship as the ship's apothecary leaving her behind and to fend for herself. She starts to make her way in the community and encounters Nat Hawthorne, someone who caught her eye immediately. Sparks fly between the two, but Nat is a troubled man. He still feels guilt that his ancestor, John, was one of the infamous judges at the Salem Witch Trials. Ultimately, Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese is a re-imagining of The Scarlet Letter's Hester Prynne and fans of historical fiction will love to be swept up into this dangerous, yet extremely entertaining world.

I really enjoyed Isobel from the start of Hester. She is such a complex character and once she arrives to Salem, she is a bit like a fish out of water. Everything is new to her and people aren't exactly nice as she is an immigrant. To top it off, her husband leaves her to go to sea, which raises more eyebrows. Slowly, she assimilates into the community; however, it wasn't easy. She realizes that her needlework is her ticket to some financial freedom, since her husband left her to fend for herself. The only bright spot in her day is Nat Hawthorne, who she feels a deep connection with. While I really enjoyed their blossoming romance, I knew that it was not going to end well being that Isobel is married and Nat is a troubled man. Nonetheless, I was completely invested in their story.

Albanese does such a good job bringing Salem and 19th century America to life. She highlights the dark underbelly so well; it was very atmospheric. The witch trials and Isobel's ancestors are always alluded to as well as the struggles of being an immigrant in America. Hester also puts a spotlight on the Underground Railroad, the horror of slavery, and adultery, not to mention the sexism and prejudices that are around every corner.

I switched back and forth from the audio book to the e-book of Hester and I have to say the audio parts I listened to were fantastic. Saskia Maarleveld is an amazing audio book narrator; she is easily one of my favorites. I could listen to her Scottish accent all day.

If you are a fan of captivating historical fiction, look no further. My only regret is that I didn't read Hester in the fall, which would have been the perfect time of the year to curl up with this novel. Have you read Hester? Is it on your TBR list? Let me know in the comments below.



  1. How interesting! Also, Edward sounds like a total pill - why would you just leave your wife behind like that?

    1. Yes! He is the worst! Such a good historical novel though. Hope you can read it soon, Angela. Thanks for visiting!


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