The Scarlet Woman
In the fairly new tradition of modern authors writing “sequels” to classics, especially those of Jane Austen, Paula Reed has imagined a future for Hester Prynne, one of the icons of English literature. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is brooding and evocative of its time and place, yet simultaneously ageless in what it reveals about human nature. Now Reed presents us with an older Hester, widowed and leaving New England to claim her daughter’s inheritance in England.
This plot hinges on the reader’s ability to accept that, when she donned the scarlet A, Hester inadvertently developed a sort of sixth sense, the power to “read” the sins of others simply by looking into their eyes and sensing their auras. It’s a pretty unlikely idea to swallow, but, at any rate,this new talent causes her much distress, and others to distrust her. Now taking shelter with a girlhood friend, Mrs. Wright, Hester and Pearl are integrated into the family. Mr Wright is one of the close confidants of Oliver Cromwell, and when Cromwell learns of Hester’s powers, he insists that she assist him in the rooting out of traitors to his new kingless regime.
Reed’s story is interesting enough, but the personality of her Hester simply doesn’t match the classic one. Her other characters are credible enough, although it’s difficult to care about any of them. It’s interesting to compare the social conditions in Interregnum England with those in New England; after all, the Puritans were in control in both places, and they were not relaxed and casual! If the protagonist were some less iconic than Hester Prynne, I’d likely be less critical, but this problem cannot be overlooked. Paula Reed is a competent writer. Read Hester as a romance with strong historical overtones, and her story is an enjoyable one.
Review based upon an advance reader’s copy provided by the publisher at no cost.