“Every decent friendship comes with a drop of hatred. But that hatred is like honey in the tea. It makes it addictive.”
Charismatic Marie Antoine is the daughter of the richest man in 19th century Montreal. She has everything she wants, except for a best friend—until clever, scheming Sadie Arnett moves to the neighborhood. Immediately united by their passion and intensity, Marie and Sadie attract and repel each other in ways that thrill them both. Their games soon become tinged with risk, even violence. Forced to separate by the adults around them, they spend years engaged in acts of alternating innocence and depravity. And when a singular event brings them back together, the dizzying effects will upend the city.
Traveling from a repressive finishing school to a vibrant brothel, taking readers firsthand into the brutality of factory life and the opulent lives of Montreal’s wealthy, When We Lost Our Heads dazzlingly explores gender, sex, desire, class, and the terrifying power of the human heart when it can’t let someone go.
A corrosive friendship between two powerful women has profound implications in this Victorian epic from O'Neill (The Lonely Hearts Hotel). In 1873, Montreal sugar factory heiress Marie Antoine and her intelligent, macabre friend Sadie Arnett accidentally kill Marie's maid Agatha during a pretend duel. Sadie's politically ambitious family then ships her off to a repressive school in England, where she discovers her calling in writing pornographic stories. Marie and Sadie reunite nine years later, but their friendship fizzles. Sadie moves into a brothel after her family discovers her writing, and Marie implements brutal cost-cutting measures at the plant following her father's death, sparking animosity from her half-sister, Agatha's illegitimate daughter Mary. George, a gender nonconforming midwife, shares Mary's outrage at Marie and hopes to cement a relationship with Sadie. After George publishes Sadie's erotica, which features thinly veiled versions of Marie, Marie bribes Sadie's way out of obscenity charges and the two women embark on a sexual relationship, until their lavish lifestyle and abuses of power make them targets in a class revolt. While the uprising subsumes the final act in an abrupt shift, O'Neill's sharp descriptions and her prose's archaic slant successfully immerse readers in the period. It's a little bumpy, but overall this distinctive, character-driven story is delightfully perverse.