Have I read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne? Yes. Do I remember any of it? No. Did that affect how I enjoyed Hester? Absolutely not.
Paula Reed picks up the narrative of Hester Prynne and her daughter, Pearl, during the years Hawthorne, at the end of The Scarlet Letter, tells his readers she was in Europe, returning later to America without Pearl; Hester: A Novel explains why.
There are so many factors to consider when reviewing a historical fiction novel–more when that novel is a response to a piece of literature. Paula’s Reed prose, for one, is different from Hawthorne’s. The language isn’t as elevated, separated as it is by time and culture. As a response to The Scarlet Letter, Hester is wonderful–the characters blossom vividly from Reed’s writing. I cannot judge whether, as a historical fiction, it merits marks for accuracy (I would hope so). My knowledge of Cromwell’s reign as Lord Protector is pragmatic and extremely beneficial to one thing only: to help navigate against a vast timeline of literature and place certain texts into the context in which they were conceived and received. To put it bluntly: I know about Cromwell because I had to study texts written during the time or that were affected by his rule to get my degree (not history).
While I enjoyed Hester and thought Reed did an amazing job keeping the timeline of Hester and Pearl’s story concurrent with Cromwell’s and that of the nation, I’m not an educated enough layperson to notice whether she grossly misconstrued events, dialogue, or customs. I do feel confident saying I’m encouraged enough by how accessible (and enjoyable) she made the history to venture forth on my own, using, of course, her characters and their timelines, to measure against the real events and how these imagined people may have fit into reality.
As for the rest of the book: don’t be intimidated if you had to read The Scarlet Letter in school as part of the curriculum and didn’t like it. Reed took two dynamic characters and made them entirely her own. The result is a novel built around the relationship between a mother and her daughter, their struggles to survive on their own, and the ways they discover themselves through their treatment of each other. Don’t even be intimidated with the history–Reed keeps a running commentary made necessary by Hester’s involvement in the government, drawing on a rich history and tumultuous times to give her quite an adventure.
There were a couple of things I particularly enjoyed, one of which was Hester’s relationship with John Manning, the only character lively enough to stand out in an almost entirely Puritan cast. The scene where Hester is first invited to White Hall and stands admiring the painted ceilings was the first of their philosophical discussions together. Laced with innuendo and flirtatious intelligent discourse, it was only a matter of time before Reed paired the two off again. In a way unique to Reed, the two discuss matters of religion and reality, inspired by an apple at lunchtime. There are some beautiful and insightful lines throughout the book, but most importantly, in conversation between John and Hester. The undertones of their meetings motived the feel of the novel; caution and danger fly in the face of passionate freedom and hidden desires. Because I am reviewing an ARC, I’m obliged not to quote directly from passages or pages that might have changed for publication, but for the most part, Reed’s writing was accessible and assumed an intelligent reader. There were a few awkward spots of prose, mostly when she referred to Hawthorne’s scenes to give her characters memory of past events as he imagined them, or when I found a few modern phrases that I felt stood out of place with the feel of the rest of the dialogue.
The only other odd thing I found was the foundation of Hester’s adventures: her adultery gifted her the ability to see sin in others–a fantastical talent that at times, felt unbelievable, especially because in the mid 17th century, I’m supposed to believe the most powerful man in England turns to a commoner for help exposing traitors and Royalists (those that would have a restoration). As long as you believe in her ability to look someone in the eye and see if they’ve sinned, then you’re free to enjoy the rest of the book. If you don’t, you’ll have a harder time of it, especially because all that Hester becomes is contingent on not only readers believing it, but Cromwell and his retinue (who eventually learn to fear her). To top that off, when she confronts Cromwell about exploiting her she winds up becoming his conscience instead of “quitting” her current position.
The prose was enjoyable, the characters grew on me, but what had become a novel about Hester doing everything in her power to give Pearl the opportunities she never had, ended ultimately in disappointment. I didn’t like the ending. Maybe I lack the insight to appreciate it (I try really hard in the insight department), but I thought it was an unexpected way to turn Hester’s penance–something I thought Reed had made quite clear was something she felt she’d finished already–into yet another chapter of her life. To have Hester become as powerful as she did emotionally, as well as politically, only to have her fuse back into her shell and pine away her years in torment over what she’d done to Arthur was, I thought, completely out of character. I didn’t mind so much how she left things with Pearl, that was believable, but to punish herself after being exposed to public shame (during which, supposedly, she’d accepted what she’d done) and punishment for decades afterwards is a slap in the face to every inch of growth she’d gained in forgiving herself. Honestly, I thought it was a bit ridiculous, but as a reminder: Hester had to go back to America alone; I don’t remember her frame of mind at the end of The Scarlet Letter to judge whether this guilt was Hawthorne’s or how much was imagined for Hester from Reed.
Either way, I didn’t like the end. The rest of the novel, however, I enjoyed, but realize it’s not for everyone. I only have to warn readers of one last thing: if reading radical discussions against Puritan ideals isn’t something you think you’d like or something you don’t think you could put into context to enjoy and understand the novel, Hester is not for you. Mostly it reads smoothly, with little attention paid to romance in favor of political survival, friendship, and the relationships between men and women; women and their daughters.
Release Date: February 16, 2010
Reviewed Format: Advance Reading Copy provided by GoodReads via St. Martin’s Press