Review: Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier
By Thomas PluckJune 12, 2018
Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier is the story of three best friends—one who was murdered, one who went to prison, and one who’s been searching for the truth all these years.
We’ve had a romance with serial killers since Ted Bundy came along looking like he needed a hug instead of the electric chair. Personally, I’m against capital punishment for many reasons—most of which you don’t give a tinker’s damn about—but death is too easy. Living is hard. Even when you’re a supposed “psychopath,” which writers have latched onto with glee as the new serial killer boogeyman in our midst. But there are still entertaining tales to tell about the victims, as Laura Lippman showed masterfully in I’d Know You Anywhere. And now, Jennifer Hillier does the same—but very, very different—with her thriller Jar of Hearts.
When you pick up a book about serial killers called Jar of Hearts, you may be thinking you’re going to get a rehash of the Valentine Killer in Rex Miller’s Slob—one of the better serial killer novels to come from the flood that Shane Stevens’s By Reason of Insanity started, only to be forgotten after Silence of the Lambs and The Stranger Beside Me brought them into the mass culture for good. While Jar of Hearts does not flinch from visceral descriptions of murder and rape, it is a much deeper story about a high school girl who fell head over heels with a killer and how it destroyed her life.
The story is cut into sections, beginning with Georgina (known as Geo to friends) at her trial where she is sentenced to five years in prison for her role in disposing of the body of her best friend, queen-bee cheerleader Angela Wong. Fifteen years after her disappearance from a party, her dismembered remains are found in a shallow grave in the woods not far from her house in Sweetbay, the fictional idyllic Pacific northwest suburb that Hillier has used in earlier novels (fans of her work will catch cameos in the police procedural sections that come later). Despite being younger than dashing young killer Calvin, and obviously under his power, she is punished for never telling the police of that awful night. Not only did The Sweetbay Strangler have two more victims, she left the Wong family tortured with the hope that their daughter might be alive. And worse yet, she reinvented herself as a young, high-powered executive who becomes engaged to the scion of a chemical empire. Not bad for the high school queen bee’s doormat friend but unforgivable in a tightly knit suburb where she—a mixed-race transplant—should express gratitude that she was “welcomed” into the town and Angela Wong’s inner circle.
Five years is a long time to wear uncomfortable panties.
Prison underwear is scratchy. So are prison bed sheets. So are prison clothes. Prison isn’t designed for comfort. It’s designed to keep the criminal away from the outside world, or the outside world away from the criminal. Which aren’t the same thing, and the distinction is important.
As a fan of prison stories, I was pleased with how Georgina’s stay was not glossed over. It changes her, as it should. This isn’t the sitcom fantasy of Orange is the New Black with a dash of social commentary. It is real and ugly, without hewing to tropes. Geo is a fish and gets hurt early on, but she makes powerful friends quickly, which leads to a relatively charmed life inside, for a pariah. Like Andy in The Shawshank Redemption, she offers her business skills to Ella Grant, a drug kingpin, and that buys her some privileges—but nothing ridiculous. The ugliness of prison is not skirted. She gets more from the foolish prison guard with whom she trades sexual favors. She is used to transactional sex bordering on assault from her times with Calvin, the “Sweetbay Strangler,” who rewarded her with sex for obedience. As the story unfolds, we learn that if she was groomed for this, it was by her emotionally manipulative friend Angela. Like when they first meet Calvin James:
Geo knew exactly why her friend was being rude, and it was because the hot older guy with the cool older friends wasn’t interested in her. Well, you know what? Tough shit. How many times had Geo sat back and played wingwoman while guys hit on her best friend? There was even a term for it in this situation: grenade. In every girl group, there was the hot one, the one the guys wanted, the one they competed for. Geo was the grenade, the one the guys had to be nice to and treat with kid gloves, because if it blew up—if the grenade didn’t like you—then the entire group of girls would leave, and there went your chances with the hot one.
Except Calvin wants the grenade. He isn’t your average guy. He wants the victim. The one who will put up with his abuse because she thinks she deserves it, that she doesn’t deserve a hot guy like him.
Georgina is released to local outrage and gets a visit from her former high school friend Kaiser, who was the officer who brought down the Sweetbay Strangler. He has his own reasons. In school, he was the puppy who followed Geo and Angela around, the “nice guy” whom she passed up for the killer. He is oddly not bitter about it, but only because he was a late bloomer who became a stud who likes having affairs with other police officers’ wives, women he can control. I’m not sure if there are any good guys in this story except maybe Geo’s father, but Kaiser isn’t as terrible as he might have been. He carries a torch for Georgina, but he won’t let her get away with murder. Calvin escaped from prison, and he hounds her, sure that the killer contacted her.
Days before her release, new bodies are found in the same woods where they buried Angela. Except this time, it seems to be a mother and her child. And a heart is drawn on a victim’s chest. If you like twists, this story has more than a pack of Red Vines. Georgina slowly reels out her secrets, keeping us reading to the very last page. Some are brilliant, but I did see one twist coming, which I had hoped was a red herring but unfortunately was not. I thought Geo and Kaiser were a little too squeaky clean for the tale they are caught up in, and the third act trades Kaiser—and her forgotten fiancé, Andrew—for a new character I didn’t care for much, but Geo drives her own story and faces the consequences herself, which I appreciated. No one is coming to save the killer’s ex-girlfriend, and she knows it.
Fans of Dexter will enjoy the serial killer mythology at play here, and those who enjoy the twisted relationships we can have in school and how they divert our growth like a bonsai tree gardener will love how Hillier plays out her line and pulls us in. Jar of Hearts is an unpredictable and unflinching thriller that keeps the pages turning with characters who are as riveting as the tangled web they weave.