Whoever said that nonsense about girls being full of sugar and spice and everything nice couldn’t have imagined Marie Antoine and Sadie Arnett, the binary star at the center of Heather O’Neill’s When We Lost Our Heads. These perversely fascinating characters are filled with guile and bile and many things vile, and even though it’s virtually a certainty that they are star-crossed, it’s impossible to tear one’s gaze away.
Marie is the beautiful daughter of a Victorian-era sugar baron; her childhood friend, Sadie, was born the odd one out into a political family of social climbers. If anything, Sadie’s ambition is to be, in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s words, “a social climber / climbing downwards.” The two girls form a peculiarly strong bond in the opening of the book, just before the act that will separate them for years: They accidentally murder one of Marie’s household maids.
Rich sugar barons’ daughters don’t go to jail, not in Montreal, not back then, so the equally culpable Sadie gets pegged for the crime and is sent off to England to a school for “difficult” girls. Over the next few years, the temporarily separated pair evolve into the bewitching sociopaths who will ignite the fuse for the book’s latter-half powder keg.
Bound inextricably by murder and money, the Antoine and Arnett families navigate an unsteady truce that ultimately leads Sadie's brother, Philip, to become a suitor for Marie's hand. Circumstances change rapidly, though, and it dawns on Marie that—for her, at least—marriage would be tantamount to slavery. “Freedom and power,” she realizes, “were one and the same and were interchangeable.” The interfamily schism seems irreparable, and scandal ensues. Rather than retreating from the gossip, Marie leans into it, while on the other side of town, the recently returned Sadie stokes the flames with an incendiary novel whose protagonists are loosely (and transparently) based on herself and Marie.
All this personal drama plays out against the background of women’s suffrage, workers’ rights and the economic inequality that characterized the Gilded Age. It comes as no surprise that society and the sociopaths are on a collision course, but O’Neill is sufficiently deft to keep the reader in suspense as to where and how that inevitable impact will occur.
With explicit echoes of Marquis de Sade and the French Revolution, this is not a book for the faint of heart or Victorian sensibility, but it does encompass a fair amount of sugar . . . and spice.