Angel and Apostle
by Deborah Noyes
The Scarlet Letter is a classic novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne inflicted annually on the high school students across America. At my school, we read it in the junior year, but it can appear at any time, any grade level. Hester Prynne is a Puritan woman living in 17th century New England, condemned to wear the letter ‘A’ upon her breast as a punishment for committing adultery. She gives birth to a daughter, named Pearl, and struggles to rebuild her life under the watchful eyes of her peers. It is filled with symbolism and dense descriptive prose…and The Scarlet Letter is also boring as hell. I didn’t particularly like reading it in high school, and I really didn’t like analyzing the book to death, but Hester and Dimmesdale and Chillingworth have all lived on in my imagination.
One thing I was always left wondering was “What happened to Pearl after The Scarlet Letter?” and this is the question tackled in Deborah Noyes’ Angel and Apostle. The story follows Pearl’s life through her childhood and on into adulthood, and a decent-sized chunk of the story intersects with Hawthorne’s original novel. In New England, Pearl is a wild, impulsive child, ostracized by others. She does have one friend, a blind boy named Simon Milton, whom she meets when her mother nurses his dying mother. The two children are separated after Simon’s mother dies, and the Milton family moves to London. At the same time Hester and Pearl cross the sea to live a quiet life in the English countryside. In England, Pearl grows into a bewitching young woman, and when she meets up once again with the Miltons a marriage quickly follows. But the same hot blood that flows in Hester’s veins also pumps in Pearl’s heart, and it seems like she is destined to follow the same cursed steps that led her mother to don the letter ‘A’.
The Scarlet Letter and Angel and Apostle don’t line up exactly; some characters have new names while others’ fates wander from the path Hawthorne chose for them. The Milton family, as well as I can remember, are a completely new addition to the story.
Pearl starts out too wise and too erudite in her childhood. In both books, she was always startling precocious, but here she just seems too much like an adult. Her language is too sophisticated. The story becomes easier to read as she grows older, until her voice and concerns match her reality, but the first third of the book doesn’t flow naturally and seems scattered, slow-paced.
Angel and Apostle is a brave reimagining of the classic novel that casts a long shadow over American literature. The language is very rich, and easily recalls the prose of Nathaniel Hawthorne without resorting to hollow mimicry. I was never fully captivated by the story in this novel, but the writing was lovely, and I think the author shows great potential. I will definitely pick up Noyes’ next novel.
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