By Kaleigh Steigman
Marissa Meyer’s Heartless is to the Queen of Hearts what Wicked by Gregory Maguire is to the Wicked Witch of the West; a story about the descent into evil. This book is an interesting addition to Meyer’s collection of fairy-tale retellings, and is her best written yet, but nowhere near the best thing I have ever read.
Heartless follows Catherine (Cath), who is both the daughter of the Marquess and Marchioness of Rock Turtle Grove and a citizen of Wonderland’s Kingdom of Hearts. Cath has a passion for baking, much to the dismay of her mother who wishes for her to marry the King of Hearts instead, and dreams of owning a bakery with her best friend and hand-maid, Mary Anne. She clings onto this picture-perfect vision of her future, even as it becomes clear that it will most likely stay a dream. In one night, Cath narrowly manages to escape a proposal from the King, and resultingly runs into the arms of the intriguing new court jester, thrusting her into two lives. In one, she is doted on by the King by day, and another in which she basks in a forbidden romance at every opportunity.
I have read many Marissa Meyer books, and would describe all of them as enjoyable, but not exceptional. They all have followed mainstream characters and predictable plots, but have been unique in at least one aspect that caused me to continue reading them. I would like to say that Heartless was an exception from Meyer’s curse of mediocrity, but there was something missing in this novel that caused it to be stuck in merely the ‘good’ category.
Lady Catherine Pinkerton, the protagonist of this story, is not unique. She is an archetype that commonly appears in modern fiction. She is a naive girl with beauty and spirit admired by those around her that she seems to be unaware, kept from her true desires: forbidden love and unfavorable hobbies by her strict yet well-intending parents. She is drawn into adventure by tastes of freedom handed to her by a mysterious boy that she can’t help wanting to know more about as he is a diversion from the fake and mundane high-society life she is used to. He is the only one she can “truly be herself around.” It is important to note that I did not find Catherine boring, but I will not remember Heartless because of the individuality of its main character, or for the innovativeness of her relationships with other characters. Like all other Meyer books, the legacy of this novel is not in the characters, but the world that they were placed within.
At times, it was hard to understand Cath, her uninhibited imagination and crippling naivety making her unreliable, but all of her faults were in some way countered by the intricate world of Wonderland. In describing this world, Meyer played a risky, albeit rewarding, game. Instead of adding introduction to the events and happenings of Wonderland, Meyer dove into them without explanation. One chapter opens with Cath waking up after sleep to find her bed canopied by a lemon tree, apparently a product of her dreams. At no point is this indicated to be irregular. As in Alice in Wonderland, certain foods are known to be ‘bad,’ meaning that they possess transformative properties, but in the illustration of these foods, there is no explanation of their origin or possible cures provided. I would not mark this as a criticism against the writing in this novel, but I would say in many instances if background had been offered, it would have made the illustration of certain scenes much more vibrant.
My favorite and least favorite aspect of this novel are both related to the plot. My issue with decent-into-evil novels is simple; I find it hard to find closure with a depressing ending. Yet, the reviving characteristic of this otherwise average story was in its tragic ending. In many stories, it is easy to identify the conflict from the first page, and then predict what the ending will be, and simply to concentrate on how to get from ‘a’ to ‘b’. In this novel, this was still true, yet I desperately wanted ‘b’ to be different.
At the beginning of the novel, Cath is at the peak of her character arc: she is optimistic about life even with the problems it presents her. At the end, she is unrecognizable, but a brilliant character. When I reached the last page, I almost wished there was a sequel so that I could see this new Catherine – the Queen of Hearts – fleshed out through Meyer’s perspective, mainly because this revived version had something I had been wishing Cath had the whole novel: a backbone.
I was not disappointed by this novel. It met my expectations. I read it rather quickly, and wasn’t inspired to stop often. Will I ever read it again? No. Will I buy it for a friend? No. Do I think that it was a story worth reading? Yes, if you are interested in something fun with an innovative plot, but lacking in any under-the-surface sentiments that will cling to you even when you have finished.