Wednesday 28 December 2022

Neo-Victorian Voices: Hester, Laurie Lico Albanese (2022)

Welcome back to the Neo-Victorian Voices series, where I review books written in the twenty-first century, but set in the nineteenth. Today it’s the turn of Laurie Lico Albanese’s 2022 novel, Hester, which was inspired by one of the great American nineteenth-century novels—Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850).

The title of the novel may be Hester, but our protagonist is the fictional Isobel, a young Scottish wife to an opium addict husband who immigrates to Salem, Massachusetts. There she encounters aspiring writer Nat Hathorne (who hasn’t yet altered the spelling of his name) and becomes a model for the character of Hester Prynne in his most famous novel.

Nat and Isobel’s emotional and romantic connection is at the core of the story, but the book isn’t just about Isobel as a muse—she is also an artist. A talented seamstress and embroider, just like Hester, Isobel has synesthesia. She sees letters in color, including, you guessed it, a scarlet “A,” but the condition isn’t one that’s talked about or understood. Isobel fears her ability may be magic passed down to her from an ancestor once accused of being a witch, a concern that dogs her when she learns the history of the 1692-1693 Salem witch trials, and the Hathorne family’s role in them. 

Familiarity with The Scarlet Letter is a plus, but not a prerequisite, for enjoying this historical novel, which errs on the side of realism over high drama. I most enjoyed the point of view of a character with synesthesia, the detailed descriptions of needlework, and the picture built up of nineteenth-century Salem. Short episodes detailing the exploits of Isobel's and Nat’s ancestors provided atmospheric background but didn’t add much to the overall plot. And the secrets harbored by Isobel’s Black neighbors were a little predictable, even though they were a welcome reminder of a broader historical context to the novel.

Overall, I’d recommend the book to lovers of nineteenth-century America settings and those who like their #histfic with just a hint of supernatural spice.

What novels would you like to see me review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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