cover image When We Lost Our Heads

When We Lost Our Heads

Heather O’Neill. Riverhead, $26 (448p) ISBN 978-0-593-42290-8

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. (Feb.)