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Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese

Historical fiction

Hester

by Laurie Lico Albanese

Excellent choice

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Quick take

You'll never look at the Scarlet A the same after reading this quintessential New England tale of power and desire.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Feminist

    Feminist

  • Illustrated icon, Literary

    Literary

  • Illustrated icon, Based_on_a_Classic

    Based on a classic

  • Illustrated icon, Infidelity

    Infidelity

Synopsis

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.

Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of Hester.

Hester

ONE

Salem was meant to be a new beginning, a place where the sharp scent of cinnamon and tea perfumed the air with hope; a place where the colors could be safe and alive in me. I was nineteen years old and Nathaniel Hathorne was twenty-four when we met on those bricked streets. His fingers were ink-stained; he was shy but handsome. The year was 1829, and we were each in our own way struggling to be free—he with his notebooks, I with my needle.

Some people will tell you that Nat spent the better part of a decade after Bowdoin College alone in his room learning how to write. But that is a fabrication meant for the ages.

The true story of how he found his scarlet letter—and then made it larger than life—begins when I was a child in Scotland and he was a fatherless boy writing poetry that yearned and mourned.

Sometimes I still picture him in my mind, a lonely nine-year-old boy with a bad limp and a mop of dark hair standing at the edge of the Massachusetts Bay waiting for a ship. He knows that his father has died of yellow fever somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, yet the boy is waiting with pencil at the ready. Something in him knows—I believe this, even after all this time—that although his father will never return, a story just as powerful is coming toward him. It is me, bent into the wind, fleeing home with my colors and my needle and my own set of needs and dreams.

It is me with my red letter secreted away.

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Why I love it

Are we prisoners of the past, doomed to pay for our ancestors’ sins? Or are we agents of change, blazing a new path forward?

In Hester, Laurie Lico Albanese’s provocative historical novel, societal judgment weighs heavily on independent young women. Lush, sensuous, and wholly original, Hester breathes new life into Hester Prynne, the tragic heroine of The Scarlet Letter, and offers a powerful reimagining of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic story while celebrating the irrepressible female spirit.

In mid-1660s Scotland, Isobel Gowdie, a red-haired woman with sensory gifts, stands accused of dark magic. Two centuries later, her red-haired granddaughter Isobel Gamble, a gifted seamstress, moves to New England, where memories of the witchcraft trials cast a long shadow. Lonely, penniless, and haunted by her ancestry, Isobel must rely on her unique talents to survive while her husband is at sea. Soon, she meets Nat Hathorne, a sensitive writer grappling with his own troubled legacy. Art and ideas draw them together and, over time, they grow closer. But will their mutual desire bring salvation or ruin?

Meticulously researched yet eminently readable, Hester offers a fresh take on the traditional immigrant tale. The lessons Albanese imparts are as timely as they are timeless and provide a fresh feminist lens through which future generations can reconsider the past.

Member ratings (15,328)

  • Alexandra O.

    Honolulu, HI

    Such an incredible reimagining. If you don’t remember the scarlet letter (like me) still read this book. The writing is flawless, the story envelopes you into a world of magic and strength. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

  • Holly S.

    Quakertown, PA

    The Scarlet Letter was one of my favorite required readings in school. To read the origin story of Hester was incredible and I love the story Albanese wove. ♥️♥️♥️♥️♥️/ ♥️♥️♥️♥️♥️

  • Leticia V.

    Dublin, CA

    ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ This is still my #1 book… It has been my favorite selection since I joined BOTM… The writing is beautiful, and the story captivated me from beginning to end—I couldn’t put it down!

  • Marti P.

    Greenville, IN

    Book review of Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Isobel and her husband Edward make a voyage from Scotland to Salem, Massachusetts for a fresh start. Her husband Edward got into some financial t

  • Kate M.

    Austin, TX

    ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Really enjoyed this one! A reimagining of a classic with a strong heroine & well told, developed side characters. The amount of research & care was evident in writing & was so appreciated!

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Historical fiction
View all
Lady Tan’s Circle of Women
The Women
The Lion Women of Tehran
Husbands & Lovers
Shelterwood
A Thousand Times Before
All We Were Promised
Spitting Gold
The Mayor of Maxwell Street
The Great Divide
The Storm We Made
The Disappearance of Astrid Bricard
Lessons in Chemistry
The Frozen River
What We Kept to Ourselves
The River We Remember
Take My Hand
The Last Russian Doll
The First Ladies
The House Is On Fire
River Sing Me Home
The People We Keep
The Attic Child
Malibu Rising
The Book of Longings
Hester
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev
The Nightingale
Daisy Jones & The Six
The Lincoln Highway
The Secret Book of Flora Lea
Did You Hear About Kitty Karr?
The Circus Train
Peach Blossom Spring
Hang the Moon
Booth
The Good Left Undone
The Perishing
The Postmistress of Paris
The Family
Things We Lost to the Water
The Spectacular
Still Life
Send for Me
The Magnolia Palace
The Bookbinder
China Room
This Tender Land
Atomic Love
All the Light We Cannot See
The Vanishing Half
Outlawed
The Four Winds
Independence
The Fountains of Silence
Libertie
Queen of Thieves
The Great Believers
The Clockmaker's Daughter
A Gentleman in Moscow
The Great Alone
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
The Paris Hours
The Heart’s Invisible Furies
Rules of Civility
Circling the Sun
The Moor's Account
Jacqueline in Paris
Don't Cry for Me
The Christie Affair
Bloomsbury Girls
The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle
Bronze Drum