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When We Lost Our Heads


When We Lost Our Heads

Heather O’Neill’s new novel, WHEN WE LOST OUR HEADS, is proof positive that deadly, serious themes can be examined in a really entertaining book. Full of decadence and larger-than-life characters, fantastic reveals and exciting plot turns, it is a marvelous read that dazzles and then challenges.

It is 1873, and Marie Antoine is the only child of wealthy and indulgent widower Louis Antoine. They live in a mansion in Montreal’s Golden Square Mile supported by the riches of the sugar factory that had belonged to Marie’s mother. Their needs are closely attended to by a cohort of young maids. Marie is pretty, clever and charming, and is her father’s constant companion. Her face and bouncing curls adorn every bag of sugar that the factory sells. She is capricious with her interests and her friends --- that is, until she first sees Sadie Arnett.

"WHEN WE LOST OUR HEADS is another solid outing for O’Neill, who continues to balance intensity with amusement in a distinctive voice that is quirky, strong and razor sharp."

Sadie is the only daughter of a family with aspirations to climb the social ladder through politics and plant themselves firmly in the Golden Square Mile. But unlike her parents and brother, she is not concerned with appearances and is drawn instead to the honest, the peculiar, the rebellious. Indeed, she is quite drawn to Marie, and they become fast friends and occasional rivals.

When a tragic accident makes them murderers, Marie’s powerful and rich father is able to protect her, and the Arnetts use the incident to send Sadie far away. Marie’s life proceeds more or less as it had been but without Sadie. And Sadie’s life is totally upended as she finds herself in a strict and abusive English boarding school for many years. There she cultivates a life as sensual and hedonistic as possible but still misses Marie. Marie’s life continues apace until she is traumatized by her father’s death and revitalized by Sadie’s return. Even with both women in Montreal together, they cannot simply pick up where they left off as girls.

Sadie finds herself on the streets of the city’s Squalid Mile, living with a gentle cross-dressing lover and working as a dominatrix and writer. Marie is the heiress of her family’s fortune and business, but her own desire for freedom and autonomy don’t trickle down to the women whose labor she exploits. Both Marie and Sadie find themselves challenging expectations of gender, yet even as they push the boundaries of what women are allowed or expected to do, it often comes at the cost of the emotions and bodies of other women.

WHEN WE LOST OUR HEADS is a fun read, full of fancy dresses, over-the-top situations and melodrama. However, beneath its frilly surface, O’Neill explores themes of female power, class, identity and responsibility. She does a wonderful job blurring the line between hero and villain as her characters wrestle with how to claim power and how to wield it. They each must decide which values to hold highest: friendship or family, independence or vengeance, community or autonomy, love or justice. The ambiguity of their morals and the frustration of their choices make the novel all too real, despite its fantastical elements.

Notwithstanding some overly long sections and a few authorial over-indulgences, WHEN WE LOST OUR HEADS is another solid outing for O’Neill, who continues to balance intensity with amusement in a distinctive voice that is quirky, strong and razor sharp.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on March 4, 2022

When We Lost Our Heads
by Heather O'Neill

  • Publication Date: February 7, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 0593422910
  • ISBN-13: 9780593422915