The Invisible Hour
Grade : B

One brilliant June day when Mia Jacob can no longer see a way to survive, the power of words saves her. The Scarlet Letter was written almost two hundred years earlier, but it seems to tell the story of Mia’s mother, Ivy, and their life inside the Community—an oppressive cult in western Massachusetts where contact with the outside world is forbidden, and books are considered evil. But how could this be? How could Nathaniel Hawthorne have so perfectly captured the pain and loss that Mia carries inside her?

Through a journey of heartbreak, love, and time, Mia must abandon the rules she was raised with at the Community. As she does, she realizes that reading can transport you to other worlds or bring them to you, and that readers and writers affect one another in mysterious ways. She learns that time is more fluid than she can imagine, and that love is stronger than any chains that bind you.

As a girl Mia fell in love with a book. Now as a young woman she falls in love with a brilliant writer as she makes her way back in time. But what if Nathaniel Hawthorne never wrote The Scarlet Letter? And what if Mia Jacob never found it on the day she planned to die?

 


Dabney: I have many thoughts about this book, but I’ll lead with two. First, this book is brimming with rage which is such a non Alice Hoffman vibe. And second, this is two books. One is a furious, fabulous story about an oppressive patriarchal cult led by a dreadful man and the two women, Ivy and her daughter Mia, who struggle to escape his evil. The other is a hard to swallow time travel love story involving Nathaniel Hawthorne. I loved the first even as its anger swamped me. The second… not so much.

Lisa: The problem with this book is that it has an absolute identity crisis.  I was captivated by the cult portion of the book, by Ivy's story and then most of Mia's.  I appreciated Alice Hoffman's enormous feminist rage at the state of the world in which we live.  But the time travel romance portion just does not work and is both ridiculous and does a disservice to Nathaniel Hawthorne's literary legacy.

The front half is this very spellbinding story about well-bred Ivy Jacob who becomes unexpectedly pregnant in high school during the mid-1960s. Realizing she’s about to be sent off to a home for unwed mothers, she flees her repressive parents. Ivy enters a commune called the Community in Blackwell, Massachusetts, but soon realizes the Community is even more repressive than her uber-Catholic background. She becomes one of several wives to Joel Davis, leader of the cult, and gives birth to Mia, who grows up knowing nothing in life but The Community, where books are forbidden, contact with the outside world forbidden, and women are subjugated. Ivy’s only freedom is loving her daughter but Mia finds a way to sneak into the nearby town’s library. When Ivy passes away suddenly, Mia realizes she must escape if she wishes to survive.

What did you think of the first half of the story, Dabney?

Dabney: I loved Ivy and Mia’s stories in the present. In Ivy’s case, she stays with Joel because she knows he’ll never let her leave—it is suggested he kills those who oppose him—and if she even tries, he’ll take Mia from her. Hoffman has clearly had it with men who wish to control women’s bodies and she is marvelous here as she sets the freedom we find in books and, um, freedom in contrast to the caged in misery of Joel’s commune. As I said, I don’t associate rage with Hoffman but her fury is on point here. I suspect the millions of women worldwide who seethe as men decree what women can and cannot wear, say, do with their children, jobs, and very beings will find Hoffman’s lovely angry prose a balm.

Lisa: This is what makes the book powerful.  But then, alas, we decide to travel into the past with Mia, and that's when the book begins to fail.  If we'd stayed in the present, this would have hit my DIK shelf easily.

Dabney: Yep. The whole Hawthorne story is a bust. It’s not a spoiler to say that Mia, through a very special copy of The Scarlet Letter, makes her way to the past. There she meets Hawthorne and his brilliant sister Elizabeth. What transpires in the mid 1880s is, unfortunately, unbelievable and somewhat convoluted. It’s difficult to rewrite history in a way that works and here, it doesn’t work.

Lisa: Exactly.  Even worse, it does actual disservice to the real woman upon whom Hawthorne based his book.  It simply didn’t work to insert this ill-defined time travel historical hegemony into the narrative. The fact that Mia apparently exists to well…you’ll see…was ridiculous. The magical element here is very ‘because plot’ and needed a lot more thought. I like Hawthorne but the Somewhere in Time shtick? Come on!

Dabney: Which is a bummer because much about this book does work. As usual, the words are gorgeous and the descriptions deft. The novel is a love story to books, librarians, and libraries and that is so my jam. And, whoa, I absolutely adored how Mia ultimately freed herself from Joel. That scene was fire.

Lisa: So in the end, my grade is a mixed one.  It's a pretty good book—for the first half. I can recommend it as a decent way to spend an end-of-summer afternoon. Not Hoffman’s best but had she lost the time travel stuff, it might have been a DIK.

Dabney: I agree. I’m giving it a B—although Hoffman lovers bewarned: Hoffman is pissed off and it shows here. I could have read so much more about Mia and Ivy in our time—those parts of the book get a DIK from me too. But the time-travel part—that’s a C grade book even ensconced in all of Hoffman’s gifts. I am kinda up for more angry Alice however. She's always written incandescent stories--here, her fury singes.

 

 

Grade : B

Sensuality: Subtle

Review Date : August 15, 2023

Publication Date: 08/2023

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Lisa Fernandes

Lisa Fernandes is a writer, reviewer and recapper who lives somewhere on the East Coast. Formerly employed by Firefox.org and Next Projection, she also currently contributes to Women Write About Comics. Read her blog at http://thatbouviergirl.blogspot.com/, follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thatbouviergirl or contribute to her Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/MissyvsEvilDead or her Ko-Fi at ko-fi.com/missmelbouvier
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