We all know the kind of person the Queen of Hearts will turn out to be, so it’s fair to say no one will be picking up Marissa Meyer’s Heartless expecting a happy ending. But it’s easy to forget that when we first meet Lady Catherine Pinkerton, a young lady with a curious dilemma: the question of how to reconcile her ambitions of being the best baker in the kingdom of Hearts with her family’s expectations of her as a noble lady.
It’s not hard to root for Cath – she’s got the talent, she’s got a plan, and she’s got enough hope and determination in her to fuel a dozen bakeries. At heart, she seems like a girl who deserves everything.
Yet in one night, Cath’s predicament turns six different shades of impossible when the King of Hearts takes up the silly notion of marrying her and making her Hearts’ Queen. Cath soon finds herself in the precarious position of struggling to hold on to her independence while trying not to break her parents’ (and the King’s) hearts.
Growing like a rose tree in the middle of it all is her attraction to the court joker, Jest – a boy straight out of Cath’s dreams with motives of his own. Their romance is rife with obvious chemistry set against stifling circumstances – yet the timeworn trope is tempered by both characters’ earnest desire to do the right thing by each other, and by their duties to the kingdom.
Cath and Jest orbit each other gracefully in this familiar realm filled with magic and menace. Marissa Meyer doesn’t attempt to reinvent Wonderland, but instead puts a new spin on its residents: a cynical and protective (not-yet-mad) Hatta; a Cheshire Cat who gossips and charms treats from bakers in the kitchens; important cameos from Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater and the wife he couldn’t keep; and my personal favorite, the raven from the popular writing desk riddle, brought to life with a dash of woe / courtesy of Edgar Allan Poe.
The story’s descent into darkness is gradual, which actually gives the despair more impact than if the twist had been abrupt and sudden. You’re riveted to watching the shadows grow, until you realize there’s no going back to the light. When the story reaches its climax, no amount of prophecy can prepare you for Cath’s blind fury and loss as all the duties and desires she’s been trying to hold together break apart into a million pieces – and for how your own heart will shatter with hers.
You’ll want mood music for this ending.
In the aftermath, the world seems to tread carefully around the new desolate, dead-eyed Catherine. We see her parents hesitate in their relentless pushing of their daughter toward the throne, and ask her if being queen is truly what she wants. She sweeps past them, all emotion and optimism gone, and says, “How different everything could have been, if you had thought to ask me that before.”
It’s a chilling cue that Catherine’s transformation from optimistic heroine to cold-hearted villain is complete. By the time she’s saying her iconic line, “Off with his head!”, we know we’ve lost her to her infamous destiny as the terror of Wonderland.
Heartless is a tale of how even the most sanguine of hearts can be warped into something unrecognizable by loss and regret. Long after you put the book down, the moral of the story lingers: Follow your own heart – or else you lose it.