Alas, this tribute to Hawthorne’s classic earns not a red A but a puce C-minus.
That’s painful to say because I’m convinced of the liberating function of literature, and I’ve got a house creaking beneath piles of beloved books to prove it. Like the heroine of Hoffman’s novel, I first fell under the spell of “The Scarlet Letter” as an adolescent, obsessed as only an innocent teenager can be with the horror of my unspeakable sins. And later, I spent a dozen years prodding skeptical students through Hawthorne’s intricately packed prose, which shimmers with passion, irony and dread like colors dancing across the scaly body of a fish.
Besides, a Hoffman reincarnation of Hawthorne ought to be fruitful. Despite their different styles, there have long been points of communion, especially between her more fantastical novels and his most famous one. Consider, for instance, the introduction to “The Scarlet Letter,” in which Hawthorne describes the otherworldly transformations he observes late at night in his parlor when moonlight pours through the windows:
“The floor of our familiar room has become a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other. Ghosts might enter here, without affrighting us. It would be too much in keeping with the scene to excite surprise, were we to look about us and discover a form beloved, but gone hence, now sitting quietly in a streak of this magic moonshine.”
“Fairy-land,” “ghosts,” “magic moonshine” — these motifs haunt Hoffman’s books, too, particularly her “Practical Magic” series, which, like “The Scarlet Letter,” is rooted in Salem. And yet, here, when Hoffman draws very close to the strings of Hawthorne’s novel, we’re made aware of the grating dissonance between them as writers.
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“The Invisible Hour” invokes the story of Eden, but rather than interrogate that biblical reference in the relentless way Hawthorne would, Hoffman keeps it as merely a gauzy decoration: In western Massachusetts, she tells us, there’s an apple tree called the Tree of Life that blooms in winter. “It was a wonder and a marvel,” she writes, “one that could make a person believe in magic, at least for a time.” But how do these allusions to the Garden relate to a belief in magic? Such questions are elided behind the fig leaf of Hoffman’s mysticism.
And yet, the story begins promisingly enough, with a contemporary version of Hester Prynne’s predicament. Ivy Jacob, the bright and beautiful daughter of a wealthy Beacon Hill family, has gotten pregnant by a Harvard undergraduate who immediately dumps her. Ivy’s scandalized parents plan to send her away and put the baby up for adoption. To thwart their scheme, Ivy runs away and joins a commune led by a tyrannical man who insists that the residents reject modern technology, avoid books and dress like Puritans. “Love is at the heart of everything,” the cult leader claims. He wants to build “a realm that would welcome all who were in need and were willing to work to create a better world.”
Unsurprisingly, this idyllic commune involves a crushing litany of rules and restrictions. Violators are whipped, imprisoned, branded and forced to wear signs around their necks “with the first letters of their transgressions there for all to see. S for selfishness … A for anarchy.”
Ivy’s daughter, Mia, is born on the commune and grows up under its intolerable oppression. As a teenager, the only relief or happiness she finds is by sneaking away to the public library, where she reads “Fahrenheit 451,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Little Women” and Shakespeare’s plays. But even that avenue of delight is eventually closed off when her books are discovered and burned. In despair, Mia decides to load up her backpack with stones and throw herself into the river. At the last moment, though, she notices an inscription apparently written to her in a first edition of “The Scarlet Letter” that she’s taken from the library.
Rather than kill herself, Mia sits down on the shore and starts reading Hawthorne’s novel, and “once she had begun, she couldn’t stop,” which confirms that “The Invisible Hour” is a fantasy. Generations of readers have found “The Scarlet Letter” brooding and challenging, a work of theological subversion, psychological insight or even feminist outrage, but Mia comes away giddily inspired by the “story of redemption and a mother’s endless love for her child.” The novel literally saves her life. “She’d thought her only choice was to leave this world, but now she had discovered how terribly alive she was. . . . Oh, glorious world. Oh, day that would never come again. How could she have ever thought of leaving it behind?”
This is a remarkable response to the moody and trenchant pages of “The Scarlet Letter.” It’s as though Mia has picked the Forbidden Fruit and made applesauce from it. And that’s just the beginning. Through some unearthly witchcraft, every prick of Hawthorne’s sharp irony is rubbed away.
Mia starts dreaming about Hawthorne, pining for him, even sleeping on his grave. “She was convinced there was magic in the world,” Hoffman writes, “and if she waited long enough, if she really wished for it, he would be hers. Love in the real world must exist, otherwise why would it be written about so often?”
The fervid passion of Hawthorne’s gothic romance has been domesticated in these pages into the earnestness of Instagram poetry, as when Hoffman says, “You could never look back, because if you did, you would understand just how much you were about to lose.” It’s not only that Hawthorne is better than this; it’s that Hoffman is better than this.
The same blanching process that renders “The Scarlet Letter” a tale of pastel pink is exercised upon the biography of its author. Here, the notoriously complex writer is changed into a romantic hero who would never complain, as he did in real life, about “a damned mob of scribbling women” ruining his chances for literary success.
When Mia slips through time and wakes up in 1837, the handsome young writer believes himself “fated to have an appointment with the forces of magic.”
“I came from another time only to meet you,” Mia announces.
“Did you?” Nathaniel asks.
Suddenly, “The Invisible Hour” feels like a tale of the world’s most determined stalker — and misreader.
“This sort of magic happened in books,” Hawthorne thinks, “certainly it occurred in his own stories, but not in real life. He was under a spell.”
Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.
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