Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Hester: The Missing Years of the Scarlet Letter by Paula Reed -- Book Review

I've been taking the kids to the library more often lately and decided to grab a stack for myself, now and then. I have such a huge TBR shelf at home, but it's fun to see what else is out there, too. I was excited? {not sure that's the word? Intrigued, maybe?} to see this continuation of The Scarlet Letter. To sum things up, I wasn't impressed. To find out why, read on.

From Amazon: "Upon the death of her demonic husband, Hester Prynne is left a widow, and her daughter Pearl, a wealthy heiress. Hester takes her daughter to live a quiet life in England, only to find herself drawn into the circle of the most powerful Puritan of all time, Oliver Cromwell. From the moment Hester donned the famous scarlet letter, it instilled in her the power to see the sins and hypocrisy of others, an ability not lost on the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. To Cromwell, Hester’s sight is either a sign of sorcery or a divine gift that Hester must use to assist the divinely chosen, as he deems himself, in his scheming to control England.  Since sorcery carries a death sentence, Hester is compelled against her will to use her sight to assist Cromwell. She soon finds herself entangled in a web of political intrigue, espionage, and forbidden love. Hester will carry readers away to seventeenth-century England with a deeply human story of family, love, history, desire, weakness, and the human ideal."

The Scarlet Letter is a story I've re-read at different times in my life and responded to differently based on maturity and experience. In my opinion, one must really be able to relate to Hester's point of view in order to really get all there is to get out of The Scarlet Letter. Yeah, you can be the scorned and bitter type and get Chillingworth, you can be the self-hating man with a martyr complex and get Dimmesdale, but to get Hester, you've got to understand redemption. You've got to "get" grace. Not everyone who reads Hester sympathizes with Hester. You sort of have to have been Hester to get it and the more life experiences I have that draw me closer to her character---all of her character---the more I cherish the story.

Reed pretty much butchers everything Hawthorne built in the character of Hester. Granted, there were some great story line themes but I was disappointed overall. As one who usually doesn't enjoy continuations, I was willing to come into this one with an open mind. I started out really admiring the new, stronger Hester; but as the author destroyed her strong and sure character more and more as the book progressed, I ended up highly disliking and disrespecting her.

It's interesting that one character trait that many reviewers seem to despise was the one thing about her that seemed completely real and believable to me. Because of her experience with the consequences of sin, Hester has the ability to see the sins of others. I, too, see hypocrisy and hidden sin in people. It's a discernment that God gives to some---a trust so one can pray and possibly speak into the situation at the appropriate time. And yes, it requires a little bit of, "it takes one to know one." Hester describes it as a mantle that they wear---I see it as a name or title they are given. As a Christian, I know that God desires us to walk with the character of Christ. When we sin, he doesn't desire to call us by that sinful name, but to give us a new name that symbolizes our redemption and salvation through him (Rev. 2). When I see a person burdened by their secret sin and that sin is named to me, I am able to privately pray into that specific situation, usually without the person ever realizing I know, in a way that not everyone can. Hester's "ability", as well as the way she was treated because of it, seems perfectly plausible to me as I have operated in this fashion to varying extents for years.

Now for all the stuff I didn't like...

Hester's deep and regular involvement in aiding Cromwell seems *a bit* contrived and overdone. Her discernment of peoples' motives and private sins was an interesting twist at first, but the author turned it into something seemingly unbelievable when she made Hester, a commoner and a woman without a male head, a most trusted aid to Cromwell. This is the 17th century we're talking about. At best, she would have been thrown out of the Wright's home to avoid scandal on their good name. At worst, she would have been condemned as a witch. Never would she have been, one day and seemingly without much thought, private confidant, and later conscience, (what????) of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell.

I was also really annoyed with her free and easy sexual nature. The author wanted the opportunity to bring in a Libertine character since that was a big Charles II "thing", but the derogatory sexual escapades and language that Hester uses change her from a woman with passions who had already learned to bridle them to something cheap and nasty. The author seemed to think Hester had to have some kind of "release" and thus took up with the character of John. But seriously, if she was so desperate for more illicit sex, wouldn't we have seen that crop up in The Scarlet Letter, where she lived alone and shunned, rather than later on when she had friends and the respect of those around her?

It would have been nice to see Pearl learn from her mother's mistakes, but instead we have to follow the predictable "sins of the fathers" trope and watch her fall into the lust trap---only to be rescued in probably the most ridiculously contrived part of the story. (Except for maybe the part about Charles II and his entourage taking regular dinners with Hester and Pearl in their little townhouse in Buges.)

Speaking of tropes, I get so tired of the "every man will betray you" garbage. Hester lectures Pearl about her ignorance toward men and assures her that even her beloved new beau will betray her before long. Men just can't. be. trusted. Sure, that might be true---but no one bothers to point out that women betray their men in the same ways. It's called being human. You stay with someone long enough and they will hurt you at some point. No matter how true in spirit they are. Can we get off the man-hater wagon...or, at the least, acknowledge we women are no better when it comes to disappointing the ones we love?

Anyone who is a fan of Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter will probably want to read this one---regardless of how lousy the reviews are. If you go into it ready to chuck plausibility, historical accuracy, and depth of character growth out the window, you'll surely find something redeemable about the story.

Linking with:
Booknificent Thursday


  1. This sounds very interesting. thanks for the review!

  2. I think I'll pass on that one. In my experience, very few "sequels" written by other people are nearly as good as the original. Thank you for the warning!

  3. That is so disappointing! I am also a fan of The Scarlet Letter and it disappoints me that the author didn't stay true to the character. Thanks for the review!

  4. I like Hawthorne, but The Scarlet Letter was never one of my favorites. Thanks for sharing this review, though. Joining you on Booknificent Thursday.

  5. How disappointing. What a bummer. Thank you so much for sharing this at Booknificent Thursday on this week!