This one’s tricky. “Heartless” is written by a woman, (Marissa Meyer), stars a female lead (from the wacky world of Lewis Carroll), and revolves around said female’s romantic drama. Boom, and already we’re back to a stereotype. Which just goes to show, just because the author is female, doesn’t necessarily mean the female characters will be strong.
The lead character, Cath, is introduced as strong-willed (yes!), has a close female friend (yes!), and feels trapped but has a plan on how to live independently (yes!). Not to mention, “Heartless” is billed as a reimagining/origin story of the Queens of Hearts from “Alice in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll. Great, I’m in! Unfortunately, the problems quickly arise.
Like many heroines, I find it difficult to root for them attempting to ‘have it all’ when it becomes glaringly obvious that things are not going to work out as perfectly as they originally planned. I love a good stubborn character, but sometimes I felt Cath was oblivious to all the changes around her – she kept trying to revert back to her original plan – when it becomes increasingly clear that enough has happened to negate that possibility. Instead of shifting, Cath remains bullheaded, stubborn, and (in effect) unlikable. It’s hard to root for someone unlikable, no matter the gender (see: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix).
What began to irk me more and more throughout the book, was how much Cath becomes defined by her romance with a boy. Jest. Originally, Cath’s biggest desire is to open a bakery with her best friend, and maid, Mary Ann. This want (which is a through line in the novel) becomes overshadowed by her romance. As Cath journeys through Wonderland with Jest, who opens her eyes to many of the mysteries of the wild world, she becomes more determined to refuse The King (her other suitor). But like many romances, to the reader it is almost immediately obvious who Cath will pick. The tension is lost. Instead, I wanted Cath’s main drive to be opening her bakery. If the romance had taken a back seat, it would have made more of an impact. Especially since a character shouldn’t be only defined by whom they love (which Cath was, in my opinion, by the end).
On a positive note, this book is filled with references to “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass”. As I read those books almost 10-plus years ago, many of the jokes were lost on me, but I felt the depth and love within the writing. Meyer clearly knows and enjoys the world Lewis Carroll built, and she does a great job with little Easter Eggs sprinkled throughout. Most of the supporting characters created for this novel were female (as opposed to the characters who are pulled from Lewis Carroll – all male) I just wish Meyer had taken the time to create a strong female character who was more invested in herself than romance.
Bechdel Test: Passes in Spades.
Last Word: If you love the world of Lewis Carroll, you’ll probably love this. Otherwise, pass.