Alice Hoffman

The Invisible Hour

Atria Books 2023


Author Alice Hoffman offers us a timely, and harrowing, historical fantasy in her novel, “The Invisible Hour,” which harkens back to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 classic, “The Scarlet Letter.”

Hoffman’s main character, Mia Jacob, is the daughter of an unwed mother, Ivy Jacob. Hoffman turns back the clock to the 1950s, when seventeen-year-old Ivy refuses to surrender her child as her parents demanded, and instead runs away with no set direction. Ivy subsequently hangs out at Harvard Station, where she learns of a commune in western Massachusetts that would offer her shelter.

… a timely, and harrowing, historical fantasy …

But the commune leader, a former ex-convict, Ken Joel, inflicts pain on those who fail to follow his strict rule — women are “obligated to appear plain, have no private possessions, or connection from family.”  Children could not live with parents, or attend public schools.

Ivy soon realizes her time with her child would be restricted but she sees no way to escape. She knows Joel would find her and take her child away. And he keeps members in line by inflicting serve punishments, including branding offenders, echoing the letter “A” Hester Prynne was forced to wear in Hawthorne’s novel which marked her as an adulteress.

During the rare opportunities Ivy could spend with her daughter she taught Mia about love for books. But because books were banned in the commune, Mia finds a way to sneak into the town’s library when she was supposed to be selling vegetables at the local farmers’ market.

When Ivy opens an edition of “The Scarlet Letter” she reads the inscription in the inside cover: “To Mia, If it was a dream, it was ours alone and you were mine.” Mia begins to fantasize that she had met Hawthorne in another life and the inscription was meant for her. In the second section of the novel, Mia time-travels and meets Hawthorne. They have an intimate relationship, which ultimately becomes the impetus for his famous novel.

This novel surfs through religion, politics and community attitudes, all which determine women’s fates. Sadly, as Hoffman relates, the time when women’s lives were controlled during the Puritan era can be eerily correlated to contemporary times around our world.