Anyone who knows me knows that I love a good villain origin story. Even better if it’s a villainess origin story, which are often woefully overlooked by the genre. I was thrilled to find a copy of Maureen Johnson’s Hello, Cruel Heart in my mailbox a few months back, but for some reason, I kept putting off reading it.
Then Disney went and released the trailer for Emma Stone’s rendition of everyone’s favorite fashion-icon-turned-puppy-murderer Cruella. Cue my renewed interest in the character which was originally brought to life in the 1961 classic 101 Dalmatians. What turned this woman into an antagonist who is more than willing to kill puppies for haute couture? Maureen Johnson attempts to answer that question in Hello, Cruel Heart.
Hello, Cruel Heart Explores Cruella's “Before”
Before there was Cruella De Vil, there was Estella. A sixteen-year-old fashion-loving pick-pocket, making the most out of her life in 1960s London. Right from the start, her point of view is fresh, engaging, and filled with potential. Johnson’s writing style had me instantly envisioning my own trip, once upon a time, through Harrods and she wrote London so vivaciously it felt like watching it, rather than reading it.
Not to be forgotten, Estella is accompanied by her two familiar accomplices, Horace and Jasper, who live in the same squatter’s home with her. They’re just as bumbling and incompetent as they are in 101 Dalmatians, but they’re given far more depth in Hello, Cruel Heart.
What’s a good villain origin story without a broken heart? Throughout the novel, Estella is romanced by a charming up-and-coming musician named Peter who’s love is not so black-and-white as she believes it to be. But at least he believes in her abilities and gets his band to wear her clothes.
Estella is also brought into a world of sumptuous luxury by two other teens, Magda and Richard, which is meant to lay the foundation for the Cruella we eventually come to love to hate. This is something I would have loved to read as a young reader. Who doesn’t love a good story where an orphan gets swept up into a life of luxury?
While Hello, Cruel Heart is a tremendously fun read, it wasn’t without a few issues for me. I didn’t feel as emotionally connected to Estella’s backstory as I expected to with an origin story novel. Her mother’s grizzly death, her upbringing, and schooling all felt lacking. With so much of that hinging on her undoing, I had really anticipated something more. While the book did wrap up a lot of the presented details, it ended rather abruptly. Perhaps setting up a future addition by Johnson? There feels like more story to tell even before Cruella hits theaters.
If you’re not looking for a very serious villain origin story for Cruella, then Hello, Cruel Heart may just be the book for you. It’s fresh, it’s fun, though it lacks something that could have made it a truly spectacular look at Cruella’s upbringing.
Hello, Cruel Heart is available to purchase now.