Hello, Cruel Heart – Book Review

Maureen Johnson (Let it Snow) is back with an origin story for one of Walt Disney Studio`s most infamous villains, Cruella de Vil! This original novel inspired by the upcoming live action film Cruella, follows Estella, a teenage dreamer who hopes of one day ruling London`s  fashion industry. But what is she willing to do and who is she willing trust to make those dreams a reality?

Here’s the summary…

Swinging London, summer 1967. Sixteen-year-old Estella, gifted with talent, ingenuity, and ambition, dreams of becoming a renowned fashion designer. But life seems intent on making sure her dreams never come true. Having arrived in London as a young girl, Estella now runs wild through the city streets with Jasper and Horace, amateur thieves who double as Estella’s makeshift family and partners-in-(petty)-crime. How can Estella dedicate herself to joining the ranks of the London design elite when she’s sewing endless costumes and disguises for the trio’s heists?

When a chance encounter with Magda and Richard Moresby-Plum, two young scions of high society, vaults Estella into the world of the rich and famous, she begins to wonder whether she might be destined for more after all. Suddenly, Estella’s days are filled with glamorous parties, exclusive eateries, flirtations with an up-and-coming rock star, and, of course, the most cutting-edge fashions money can buy. But what is the true cost of keeping up with the fast crowd-and is it a price Estella is willing to pay?

This book, part of the run up to the film’s release in May, gives us the origin story for would be puppy killer, Cruella de Vil, who at this stage, is a teenage dreamer named Estella, living very meagerly, pickpocketing her way through life. And I’m not sure of the timeline, but this book ends just as she begins to embrace her lot in life and shades of the raucous, fashionable, and revenge-bent Cruella we know so well begin to show.

Hello, Cruel Heart by Maureen Johnson has one purpose, create sympathy for Estella who was dealt a bad hand from day one despite this unnatural gift of fashion genius. And both of things are true, she indeed got off to a rough start thanks to some ill-fated trauma, and she’s definitely got fairy-tale-like couture superhuman abilities.

She’s not a thief, as she likes to remind folks, just simply “steals” to make ends meet while she and her crew (Horace and Jasper of course) wait for their ship to come in. Estella though, unlike her co-swindlers, is growing tired of this lifestyle and tired of waiting for her dreams to spontaneously appear. She’s ambitious and talented sure, but in the uber-competitive world of a 60’s London fashion scene, one needs more than that, one needs to catch a break.

Does this book succeed at its sole objective? Mostly, but because this is a Disney character, we don’t get too stern a look at trauma, not in a real-world sense. Instead, we get mostly a series of flashy beat-downs from establishment types meant to drive Estella towards being anti-establishment. This is where the book asks you to do a little of the heavy lifting, by not letting Estella (Cruella) of the future influence your opinion of Estella of the present, at least not yet anyways.

And if you can remove yourself from cynicism for a moment, Maureen paints a very nice picture of a girl who does struggle, and who does perhaps deserve a do-over. Mostly thanks to the books YA underpinnings, we are privilege to her point of view and as such understand that beneath the tough exterior lies a soft spot that wants what most people want at that age. Estella, at the outset, survives by embracing the reality of her situation, but still looks longingly at young couples in love or hipsters with a penchant for great taste. These quieter revealing moments are when the book shines brightest, but they are too often supplanted by spectacle. Likewise, some of the more effective and visceral parts of the book for me are when she accentuates Estella’s creative bursts. Estella goes into what can only be called the “zone”, entering a sort of dreamlike state where she draws within herself, cutting off the outside world almost hypnotically, as she sews, cuts, measures, and designs genius. It’s good stuff that I wished we’d had more time for.

In most any story, when a character who trusts no one begins to trust anyone, bad things can and do occur. So, thanks to this chance encounter mentioned in the summary and a shot at true love, Estella does what most bottled-up types do, she let’s her guard down. When you’ve had nothing and then suddenly have everything (objectively speaking), losing it through acts of betrayal, that’ll turn most anyone sour. And if that was one of the intended goals of this book, to have Estella experience a sort of Pygmalion effect, then Maureen mostly succeeds.

We don’t get the external transformation necessarily as most of the behavioral changes occur within, showing Estella as having a type of split personality. Having “Cruella” begin as an influencer inside Estella’s head, one that embraces that chaos, bathes in cynicism, and loathes self-regard, is an interesting concept. Less a second head, more a monster trying to escape a gilded cage, this “voice” is constantly pushing Estella towards the dark side. And up until the end, she manages to display some self-control and keep Cruella boxed up; having convinced herself that perhaps hell isn’t the only destination at the end of good intentions.

So, is Maureen implying that Cruella de Vil is simply a product of a society full of emotional sadists that operate on rapacity and toil in cruelty? Or are we meant to believe that Estella was damaged goods from day one and this tryst was simply the push “Cruella” needed to end her chrysalis stage. Either way, or at least up until the end, Estella isn’t a bad person in the grand scheme of things. She’s kind of a pure soul who is guilty of letting her guard down and hoping for too much, and getting her heart broken as a result, but the offer was just too good for her to pass up. She really just wasn’t prepared for the type of disputation, greed, and lust that can be found in certain social circles, and unfortunately for her, it’s a circle she’s destined for.

A slightly disappointing aspect of the book was the mystery/reveal portion regarding Estella’s mother. It doesn’t really work because, frankly, it’s not allowed to. It’s neither given the room to breathe nor resolute in its purpose, which is surprising given the importance of it. On the flipside, something I enjoyed very much was Maureen’s sets; you definitely get a sense of what a post-war “Swinging London” looks, smells, and feels like, with generations converging on a city very much in transition. The colors are vibrant, the music is loud, and the scents are sweet, and several instances, as Estella makes her way about town or attends events are pleasingly immersive.

So, what are we left with?

The bottom line is, as an origin story, Hello, Cruel Heart is neither riveting nor depressing enough to warrant any of the despicable actions we know Cruella will eventually undertake, but I’m not entirely sure anything that dour is in demand. Strictly as a Disney YA story about heartbreak, self-discovery, and having the floor fall out from under you, it’s not bad at all, and it mostly works. And after learning all of this, circling back to my original proposition, does Maureen paint Estella a sympathetic character? That’s up to you to decide but I’d say yes, with a little bit of extrapolation required.

Either way, it’s short and easy to read so why not spend an afternoon getting to know Estella, especially if you plan on seeing the film.

Hello, Cruel Heart is out now so click HERE to order a copy today!

Check out the trailer for the film below and see if you can spot Horace and Jasper!