While everyone may know the story of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, readers may remember the community more than the character of Hester Prynne. In the hands of Hawthorne, Hester is singular, a tool of chaos and a plot point in the story of community grappling with their own morality. In the hands of Laurie Loco Albanese, Hester is a character in her own right and this is her story.
At least, this is a story that may have been hers. The character of Hester, or the potential inspiration for Hawthorne, is named Isobel in these pages. She is a Scottish immigrant in the town of Salem. Without contacts, family, or any money, Isobel needs to find a way to survive while her husband is following his own economic premonitions on a boat around the world. When Isobel was a child, her mother taught her to sew. However, such needle work and creativity showed off the synesthesia that scared their bloodline. Isobel’s mother told her to ignore all of the colors she saw, to never tell anyone about them, and that following these rules would save her life. They would guarantee Isobel wouldn’t fall into the pit of fear that her grandmother did when people thought her colors were a sort of witchcraft. As Hester is adjusting to life in Salem, she is wondering where the line between her mother’s advice and her own success is. She is also wondering about the true nature of her husband and whether she could be happy with a young, struggling writer, also known as Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Albanese’s take on the inspiration of Hester Prynne is refreshing and adventurous. The explanation of synesthesia for witchcraft is interesting to say the least. However, I felt the use of synesthesia within the work was limited and frequently brushed aside to make room for more fantastical elements in Isobel’s character. Isobel seemed to be a character frequently struggling not just with how she sees the world but how she organizes it, and I think the element of synesthesia could have been used more throughout her story. I think the struggle to avoid what you see is an everyday, any moment type of struggle that was ignored more often than naught in the work. Mostly, Isobel dealt with the difference between what she wanted out of her life and what she could willingly expect from it. And that is a struggle we all deal with, which makes the story of Isobel more timeless than that of Hester.
With all of that being said, I’m still torn on the ending. My back-and-forth could be a symptom of a brilliant ending or one that didn’t fulfill my interests in the life of Isobel. But readers shall decide themselves.
Hester was published by MacMillan Publishers on October 4, 2022.