In The Invisible Hour by Alice Hoffman, Ivy Jacob grows up in Boston, beautiful and wild, spoiled yet neglected. An unintended pregnancy prompts her to rebel against her parents' plan to send her away and put the child up for adoption. Instead, Ivy runs away with an acquaintance to a farming commune in rural Western Massachusetts, where she gives birth to a daughter, Mia, and marries the cult leader, Joel. The cult separates mother and daughter and Ivy’s life becomes small, hard and contained. Members of the secretive Community keep close watch on one another to prevent escapes or infractions. “Ivy had begun to think that life was made up of a series of accidents and drastic errors. The unexpected became the expected, you made the right turn or the wrong turn and all of it added up to the path you were on. Happiness was there and then gone, impossible to hold on to.”
The commune educates the children just enough to follow Joel's directions and produce goods sold in the nearby town. Joel forbids contact with the outside world, whether chatting with strangers or reading books. While selling goods at a community farmstand, Mia discovers the library and begins removing books, including a first edition of The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne.
Of course, cult leaders resent and fear free thought. Ivy warns her daughter to be careful, while the librarian pities anyone living in a place that outlaws reading, musing “In a place where books were banned there could be no personal freedom, no hope, and no dreams for the future.” The librarian’s philosophy: “Turn someone into a reader and you turn the world around.” And reading enthralls Mia. “Take one risk and you’ll soon take more. It’s an addiction, or it’s bravery, it’s foolishness or it’s desperation.”
After her mother’s death, Mia understands she has lost her only ally in the world. Ivy had long warned the girl to avoid picking a fight with Joel due to his unwillingness to back down. Mia tries to fade into the background, recalling a line from Shakespeare’s Henry IV: “We have the receipt of fern-seed, we walk invisible.” Invisibility was the only way to control her life and resist the Community’s rules: “Her life was in her own hands, to do with as she pleased, the one thing that belonged to her, the only thing she could claim for herself.”
She considers running away, the night before Joel plans to brand her as punishment. “Sometimes walking away is the bravest thing you can do.” The librarian assists, delivering Mia to a close friend who lives in Concord, where Mia attends school and thrives, even as Joel continues to follow and threaten her.
The second half the book takes a strange and surreal turn as Mia travels into the past for an encounter with Nathanial Hawthorne. The writer is handsome, philosophical and ambitious, coddled by his two sisters yet he also anxious about failure, injustice, and his struggle to write. Nathanial and Mia first meet in the forest and he wonders if she she is dream, perhaps even a ghost, a witch or an angel. “In his writings, women were often principal characters, independent, with minds of their own, often truer to their emotions and to the natural world than the men around them.”
Mia carries her copy of The Scarlet Letter, a book that Nathanial has yet to write, and she becomes both lover and muse for the author. Mia is forthright about her journey while recognizing the danger of becoming too close, thinking “how one person could save another’s life or ruin it without meaning to. She had already said too much….” Mia returns from the past, suggesting that an unmarried Hawthorne writes his famous novel soon afterward. Such details do not mesh with Hawthorne's biography, considering that Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter in 1850. As a scholar, Mia describes a loving, supportive relationship between Hawthorne and his wife, Sophie, yet the woman does not enter Hoffman's plot. The actual couple married in 1842 after a long courtship. Oddly enough, Hawthorne spent time on a farm run by the Transcendentalists, where he met Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. He took a political job soon after marrying and, after being fired in1849, only then did he have time to write The Scarlet Letter.
The transition between modern and 19th century settings is rough and not just because the historical issues. The ending is abrupt, rushed and confusing much like the end of a strange dream. An inscription in the first-edition cherished by Mia reinforces this notion: “To Mia, If it was a dream, it was ours alone and you were mine.” Readers are justified in wondering if everything about Mia’s life is a figment of her imagination, that she is free only because of the books she had read.