Monday, May 17, 2010

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

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

St. Martin's Press, February 2010
ISBN: 978-0-312-58392-7, ISBN10: 0-312-58392-3,
6 1/8 x 9 1/4 inches, 320 pages,

When Paula Reed asked me to read through a draft of her book, Hester, a couple of years ago, I was at first a bit hesitant that I would be able to give her a useful and informed opinion. I’d never read Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter all the way through, having been put off by his writing style the one time I’d attempted to read it. And despite being a history buff, the 17th century is not an era that I am much familiar with.

Nevertheless, I decided to go ahead and share my thoughts, as the opinion Paula sought from me was whether the character of John Manning, the philosophical libertine who became Hester’s lover and friend, resonated with me. As one who has spent my adult life living the life of a libertine without shame and as one who has always been interested in philosophical questions, this was something I felt I could adequately do.

In our blogs, I’d previously expressed to Paula that I’d like to see her write an unapologetic libertine character who did not change his ways by story’s end. She assured me that she’d remembered these blog conversations when creating Manning.

To answer Paula’s original question, I would say that John Manning’s character did indeed resonate with me. Unlike improbable romance novel libertines, who always, without fail, decide all they ever really wanted was a wife and children by story’s end, Paula Reed’s John Manning rings true to reality as he stays true to his self.

While reading, I often found myself nodding along with things he said, agreeing and understanding exactly where he was coming from. To quote Paula’s own words, John Manning “never changes, never repents, and remains a dear friend of Hester’s even after their sexual relationship ends.”

As well as being Hester’s friend and lover, I saw John as a steadying influence in her life, bolstering her resolve to live without shame or apology, especially during the times when her confidence faltered. He was, to use an expression my father often used, her “BS detector”, just as she was the “BS detector” for everyone else.

What I think I enjoyed most about this book, were the questions about the nature of sin, shame, integrity, and the dictates of individual conscience vs. religion that ran through the novel, which I thought best addressed by Hester’s conversations with John. And, of course, I found it particularly appropriate and satisfying that Manning worked for the downfall of Puritanism.

One thing I particularly liked was how Sir John Manning was eulogized in the Epilogue:

“There lies Sir John Manning,” proclaimed Lady G--- “an impenitent sinner and the only man who never lied to a single woman. Not so much as ‘I shall see thee in the morning.’”

“He may never have lied to one,” avowed Lord H---, “but God knows he lay with more than his share. Can’t hate him for it, though. Many an Englishman benefited by way of a more skillful wife.”

I have to say that I would be quite happy to be eulogized similarly when my time comes.

Though I’m sure that those who have read Hawthorne’s original novel will enjoy this book as a companion novel, it also works well as a standalone for those, such as myself, who did not read The Scarlet Letter. Highly recommended for those who enjoys historical fiction.