When We Lost Our Heads by Heather O’Neill has a similar quality to it as when Marie Antoinette purportedly said, “Let them eat cake.” Is it a coincidence that one of the main characters is named Marie Antoine? I don’t know, but I like it.
When We Lost Our Heads is set in 1873 Montreal and follows two young girls who form an intense friendship that quickly implodes after a deadly accident.
Twelve-year-old Marie Antoine is adored and loved by everyone around her. Her mother died when she was very young, so her doting father has made it his mission to give her whatever she wishes. She knows she will one day be in charge of the sugar factory that she is the face of and that her father operates.
Twelve-year-old Sadie Arnett and her family are new to the wealthy neighbourhood of The Golden Mile. Her family has little wealth, but believe their new home will advance them politically and socially. From a young age, Sadie observed that her family placed all their attention and hopes of raising their social status on her brother Phillip. Perhaps because of their neglect, Sadie shows an interest in all things dark. Her first memory is throwing herself off a cliff. She finds joy in drowning kittens. She spends her time writing material that others would consider shocking.
When the two girls meet, everything else around them disappears. They love each other deeply, but they also feel intensely envious of one another. Their jealousy culminates in the pair often competing against each other. One such competition turns deadly, which inevitably forces the girls apart.
Throughout their lives, they will still feel connected in a way they do to no other. Set against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution, extravagant wealth contrasts against the impoverished working class.
Review of When We Lost Our Heads
This novel masterfully tackles gender inequality, gender identity, sexuality and class.
Twisted, decadent, and lavish are all words that describe this literary delight. The characters are not always likeable, but they are utterly fascinating.
My favourite parts of this novel were the girls growing up and discovering themselves. Around the midpoint, I found it slowed down a tad. The pace picked up again in the last quarter with its initial grandiosity and ended with a satisfying conclusion.
I don’t know what Heather O’Neill’s other books are like, but I will for sure be checking them out now.
I recommend this to readers that like morally grey characters and to those wanting a dark yet wonderfully absurd coming-of-age tale.
CW: sexual assault.
My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Expected Publication: 01 February 2022
Thank you to HarperCollins Canada for providing an arc via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
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