Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Wednesday, June 1, 2022: Maximum Shelf: Hester

St. Martin's Press: Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese

St. Martin's Press: Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese

St. Martin's Press: Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese

St. Martin's Press: Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese


by Laurie Lico Albanese

A magnificently crafted 19th-century drama shimmering with enchantments, Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese is the story of a beautiful, talented Scottish needleworker, Isobel Gamble, and her love affair with dashing New Englander Nathanial Hawthorne at the cusp of his distinguished writing career. With the affair and its turbulent aftermath at its literary core, Albanese's sumptuous third novel sets sail from Scotland to Salem, Mass., and beyond on a grand historical adventure, exploring the lingering legacy of witchcraft trials and the struggles of immigrants, including freed slaves, to make a home in the New World.

Isobel narrates, first as a child growing up in the idyllic Scottish countryside and then as a young woman trying to build a new life in Salem. Hester takes root and blossoms around an intriguing, irresistible premise: it imagines the romance between Isobel and Nat--as Hawthorne was known in his hometown--as the inspiration for The Scarlet Letter and Isobel as Hawthorne's muse for his famously tragic heroine Hester Prynne. Isobel's account, she offers, is "the true story of how he found his scarlet letter--and then made it larger than life."

In early 1829, 19-year-old Isobel and her apothecary husband, Edward, leave Scotland under a cloud of financial scandal. They cross the Atlantic on a commercial ship bound for Salem, commanded by Captain William Darling. In Darling she surprisingly finds a fellow needleworker and a dependable friend. Determined and ambitious, Isobel hopes to earn enough money to open her own dressmaking shop and become financially independent from her thieving, opium-addicted husband (who soon departs Salem on another ship, purporting to be a medic). Sentimentality for the family she left behind is a luxury Isobel cannot afford, although she allows herself to daydream about the mythical selkies and faeries of her childhood.

In the bustling port city of Salem, she meets Nat, a tall, caped man in his mid-20s with a limp, who's struggling to make a name for himself as a writer. Nat's family has lived in Salem for generations; this affords him a level of security and acceptance not extended to newcomers like Isobel. Her new neighbors, Zeke, Mercy and Mercy's children, Ivy and Abraham, are kind but secretive, and she forms few friendships.

Albanese resurrects historical figures who contributed to the town's vibrant African American population, including John and Nancy Remond, a couple who created a legacy of hospitality and social activism. Isobel suspects that Zeke and Mercy, who are Black, are collaborating with the Remonds--hiding something--but the sheer scale of their clandestine activities comes into focus only after the drama of Hester reaches a fever pitch and Isobel's true destiny is unveiled.

Albanese captures the busy prosperity and rituals of Salem families: shopping on market day at the wharf, attending church on Sundays. She incorporates the disquieting Puritan undertones from the town's dark past as an epicenter of the witchcraft trials in the 1690s, a heritage that weighs heavily on Salem's inhabitants. Nat's forefathers were responsible for the hangings of many condemned women, and their shameful family history is a burden Nat deploys to fuel his tortured writing.

Any mention of witchcraft terrifies Isobel. Her namesake ancestor, Isobel Gowdie, a historical figure of some fame, was accused of being a witch in 1660s Scotland. Isobel worries about her own proclivity to magic, having inherited unusual sensory traits that enhance the sounds she hears with colors and textures, like the rich, elderberry fruit of Mercy's speech or the soft, slippery melon pink and green of Ivy's voice. Each letter of the alphabet appears to her in a particular hue, with the letter "A" a vibrant scarlet color. An aura of enchantment trails Isobel, from her fiery red hair to the bewitching artistry of her embroidery, her work coveted by society ladies. She keeps her gifts secret, concerned about associations with witchery.

Albanese's elegant writing captures the dynamic, sensual energy between Isobel and Nat in breathtaking detail. Nat's seduction of Isobel is driven by an urgent and compelling need to practice his storytelling craft, so much so that he credits Isobel's very appearance in Salem to his own burning imagination. Isobel is captivated by Nat's ability to openly indulge in a world of fantasy so different from the dull churn of her isolated existence. The calm, rhythmic act of sewing is her salvation; it consumes her and also puts food on the table, and her artistic gifts are part of her allure for Nat. Isobel uses her needle to tell her own stories and discovers in Nat a soul mate she can confide in.

As their relationship intensifies, Isobel's carefully cultivated reputation in Salem society is at risk of being destroyed by the scandal of their affair. In the life path she ultimately chooses, Isobel's raw power flows from her refusal to internalize the shame others attempt to foist upon her, embracing the ideals of self-determination and courage that propelled Hester Prynne to literary feminist fame. In Hester, Albanese has masterminded a thoroughly immersive drama and a memorable, spirited heroine for the ages. Isobel's appeal crosses cultural and generational borders to embody a timeless existential quest for the freedom to love and live as one pleases. --Shahina Piyarali

St. Martin's Press, $27.99, hardcover, 336p., 9781250278555, October 4, 2022

St. Martin's Press: Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese

Laurie Lico Albanese: An Iconic Heroine Has Her Say

(photo: Martha Hines)

Laurie Lico Albanese is the author of Blue Suburbia: Almost a Memoir; and the novels Lynelle by the Sea; The Miracles of Prato, co-written with art historian Laura Morowitz; and Stolen Beauty. Albanese has worked in book publishing and journalism; her travel and general-interest articles have appeared in the New York Times and elsewhere. She has taught creative and formal writing to all ages, and lives with her husband in Montclair, N.J. Albanese's fifth book, Hester (St. Martin's Press, October 4, 2022), is inspired by the heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.

What was it about The Scarlet Letter and the character of Hester that made you want to tell her story?

Hester Prynne is an iconic heroine, but like Helen of Troy, she has very little to say for herself. Who was she? What would she want us to know about how she came to be the star of Hawthorne's tale? What sorts of decisions and turning points led her to become a ferocious single mother who still inspires us today?

Readers and scholars continue to debate whether Hester is an empowered proto-feminist, or a polemic figure meant to warn women away from passion. I decided I'd let Hester speak for herself, and started out by simply asking: Who are you?

Nathaniel Hawthorne is portrayed in exquisite detail, including the suffering he endures in the pursuit of his art. What drew you to his character?

Nat is a writer, and I identified with him as a young artist struggling to make his way in the world. Writers need grit and a certain hubris, but also a deep vulnerability. It wasn't hard for me to give these attributes to Hawthorne.

I made him the sort of handsome, brooding narcissist that a vulnerable young woman might fall for. Narcissists wound, yet they feel wounded by others and see themselves as victims. This is the narcissist's dilemma as I understand it, and I wanted to explore that on the page. Nat pursues what he wants, without worrying about how his actions might hurt others. Later, he uses his pain for inspiration.

Must readers be familiar with The Scarlet Letter to enjoy Hester?

Hester is a coming-of-age story about a creative young woman whose gift is a curse that is also a lifeline, once she can see it that way. I don't think you have to be familiar with The Scarlet Letter to appreciate Isobel Gamble's struggles, fears or desires.

This is also a love story, and I kept thinking about Heathcliff while I was writing it--also, Mr. Darcy. You don't need to know the original stories to recognize the brooding hero archetype or to feel fascinated as he advances toward our heroine. Is she powerless, or powerful? Does she know how to harness and use her strength?

It's my hope that the two books complement one another.

Would you classify Hester as a romance novel in the way Hawthorne described The Scarlet Letter?

Hawthorne defines "a romance" as a story that reaches beyond what is probable, into a world that is fantastical. "Romance" didn't mean love story, but simply something improbable. I find Hester entirely plausible so, no, it is not "a romance."

In his preface to The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne says his story takes place "somewhere between the real world and the fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet...." I place my own story squarely in that space, with a firm footing in the Scottish myths of Isobel's childhood.

You write expansively about questions concerning witchcraft and enchantment in the novel. What did you hope to achieve by telling this history from both Isobel's and Hawthorne's family perspectives?

Anyone who lives a creative life is inviting enchantment into their days. How is that summoned, where is it found in our culture and where is it stifled? How is it enriching, and how does it interfere? This is one way I considered the question of enchantment in Isobel's and Nat's stories.

The other was to make them descended from the accused and the accuser in the historical record of "witches." In Salem, descendants of the accused and the accusers in the 1692 witch trials live side by side to this day. Who forgives, and who doesn't? What is the cost? I wanted to let that play out in the story from all angles.

As a recent immigrant, Isobel struggles to gain acceptance in her new home. What is it about the people and history of Salem that makes it hostile to outsiders? Is Hawthorne representative of that hostility?

Although Salem was a wealthy international shipping port in the early 19th century, it was a society closed to outsiders. Hawthorne's ancestor William Hathorne crossed the Atlantic in 1630 aboard the Arabella and was granted land by the Massachusetts Bay Colony under the charter of King Charles. Those descended of Salem's first families were committed to holding onto the wealth and property they'd claimed and fought for.

As a descendant of an original colonist, Hawthorne is a Salem insider. But he's also an outsider because his family has lost their standing and their wealth--his father died when he was four, leaving his mother impoverished. His duality intrigues me, much as it plagued him.

The creative process is an essential element in the love story between Nat and Isobel. Why was that important to you?

Creative tension can be a lot like sexual tension, in that friction is the place where the spark is made. I tried to put that fission into all of their interactions. For Isobel to be more than a muse to Hawthorne, I had to make him her muse, as well. Their flirtatious banter around writing and embroidery is a form of seduction and foreplay. My favorite part of their romance is the way they inspire and embolden one another to greater and more ambitious work.

As a self-described extrovert, how do you mitigate the solitary nature of your craft?

I keep a regular work schedule, stay in close touch with friends and family, play sports and try to get out in nature every day. Nothing mysterious there--in the time of Covid, most of us have found it takes effort to maintain the sustenance of community. I'm extremely thankful to live in a town that has a rich writing community, and to have dear friends who are novelists, journalists, scholars and artists. People matter to me. My husband is in publishing, and we have a wonderful, shared life. Our grown children are big readers, too.

What do you most hope for Hester as you release this story into the world?

I hope readers will embrace this story as a continuation of the conversation Hawthorne began in 1850, when he claimed The Scarlet Letter was inspired by a piece of worn embroidery that he'd unearthed behind a brick in the Salem Custom House.

The Scarlet Letter takes place in 1600s Boston and was published in 1850. Likewise, Hester takes place roughly 200 years in our past. Hester is historical fiction inspired by historical fiction; it's a reconsidering of the tale as a woman's story of empowerment and agency. I think it's time that Hester had her say. --Shahina Piyarali

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