|Hester / Laurie Lico Albanese
New York : St. Martin's Press, 2022.
Isobel feels a connection to him right away, despite being married to an older man. But her husband goes off on an expedition with the ship's captain who brought them to American, and she is left alone in this new and unfamiliar settlement. Her Scottish heritage and her red hair mark her out as 'lesser than' to the Americans already living there. And then she finds that her husband has taken her small savings with him, leaving her literally penniless. She has to turn to the needle to survive, and the descriptions of her embroidered gloves, and eventually more clothing for the women of the settlement, are beautifully done. Her needle is enchanted, stitching images with hidden words and a feeling of power. But this isn't something that will be of much benefit in a place that's suspicious of any inkling of enchantment.
She is helped by her landlady, an old woman known locally, half-seriously, as a witch. And she's also helped by her nearest neighbour, a free Black woman named Mercy (who is Isobel's inspiration for the powerful hidden words in her work; Mercy did it first). Both of these long-term residents know that the community is not friendly to unusual women, and they reluctantly help Isobel even when she's headstrong and behaves in questionable ways. It doesn't help, either, that Isobel has synesthesia, like many women in her family, and has embroidered her family's story into a cloak that she wore upon arrival, arousing more suspicion of being uncanny.
Isobel, lonely and young, is swayed by Nathaniel Hawthorne's gothic moodiness and obvious attraction to her. They begin an affair, which Isobel thinks is serious even when the reader can tell it isn't, not on his side. He comes across as entitled and petulant, weak willed and selfish, which is a problem when you are using real people as characters in your fiction. I've mentioned my distaste for real people as fictional characters before, and this book just squeaks by for me due to its other strengths. And the fact that I'm not a huge Hawthorne fan, I guess!
The writing is rich here, particularly when describing Isobel's childhood and Scottish life. The toxic relationship between the two main characters goes on a little too long, and the outcome is easily predictable, sadly. But I enjoyed the ending, as Isobel ends up in Atlantic Canada with a decent man. The book is presented as a possible backstory for The Scarlet Letter, but I can see connections to novels like The Witch of Blackbird Pond or the more contemporary The Sea Captain's Wife, as well. I actually thought it was a pretty good read, compelling writing with some dual timeline backstory on Isobel's witchy ancestor, and a strong thread about slavery's evils with complex characters inhabiting that story alongside Isobel's own.
(this review first appeared at The Indextrious Reader)