This book falls into one of my most ambivalent subgenres: the villain origin story. When done well (Meyer credits the book Wicked as an inspiration) these flipped narratives can be incisive critiques of the stories we tell about our world and thoughtful returns to beloved worlds. When not done well, though, they are often insipid and tedious. Worse, they can be ethically troubling, because not every villain needs to be redeemed.
I fear this falls into the latter category. Although well-executed, “Heartless” is ultimately a story that did not need to be told.
It imagines a backstory for the Queen of Hearts, the principal antagonist of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The problem with this is that the Queen of Hearts, like the other denizens of Carroll’s wonderland, is not really a character in the psychological sense of the term. She is an archetype. Carroll said she was “embodiment of ungovernable passion – a blind and aimless Fury.” She is not, in short, a likable young woman. She is a fairytale monster, not a misunderstood hero.
And I think it’s fundamentally misguided to try to turn her into something else. Not every story needs a complex, redeemed villain. Sometimes a monster is just a monster.
Setting my hesitations re: the premise aside, I still don’t think the book really works. Cath is a very likable character, with her passion for baking one of the most appealing things about the whole book. Her descent into a full-fledged storybook villain is simply not believable. Why does she start trying to take off the head of everyone she encounters? It doesn’t make sense for the character, and her journey of corruption to that point isn’t a convincing one. This might be because her principal motivator changes from opening her own bakery to being with Jest, a man who does not, as far as I can tell, have a personality.
I did love the book’s depiction of whimsy, the friendship between Mary Ann and Cath, and Cath’s struggle to make it on her own as a baker. There was another story lurking under this one: that Cath, repressed and forced into a marriage she doesn’t want, goes out for bloody vengeance against a whole sexist society. I wish these themes had come out more.