“Jar of Hearts” by Jennifer Hillier blends a murder, cover-up and twisted relationships. Through manipulated lives, prison hardships, abuse, friendship and wrecked futures, readers understand how someone’s life can go so wrong.
The story came from an article Hillier read, “about the wife of a serial killer that was released from prison and re-invented her life.”
“Karla Homolka was the wife of Paul Bernardo, a serial killer that murdered three young women back in the ’90s in Toronto,” Hillier said. “Karla testified against her husband in exchange for 12 years, which turned out to be a very lenient sentence once it was discovered what an instrumental role she played in helping Bernardo find his victims. Her sentence was not harsh because she claimed he was abusive and she became a victim of his as well. After serving her time she remarried, had children of her own, and became a PTA mom. For me, this is just mind-blowing.”
The story centers on Georgina (Geo) Shaw, someone who had to deal with the grief of losing her mother and two best friends. But it appeared she overcame it, becoming a successful, 30-year-old, self-made executive at a Seattle pharmaceutical company. That is until she was arrested at a board meeting and charged with being an accomplice in Angela Wong’s murder — her high school best friend. She makes a plea deal to testify against her former abusive boyfriend and the actual killer, Sweetbay Strangler Calvin James.
Not only did he choke Angela to death, but also killed three others. Georgina is sentenced to five years in prison for her role. After she is released from prison, new killings of mothers and their children start piling up, and Geo, unable to escape her past, is suspected of knowing something about the new murders.
“I want readers to be unsure if they liked, disliked, or are somewhere in between with Geo,” Hillier said. “After all, she was only 16 when her friend was murdered and she was scared of Calvin and scared about going to prison with a feeling that her life would be ruined. Because Angela was already dead, she felt it would not matter if she came forward.
“As days went by it became harder and harder for her to get out of the lies. The secrets just pile up. How do you go back and undo all of that? Since no one specifically asked her, she was hoping it would just go away. She basically learned how to compartmentalize.
“I do think she felt if someone had asked her that she would have told them and confessed. She became entrapped by her own secrets. Her moral code shut down, and her survival mode took over. She did not think of the other consequences, that more women could die and Angela’s family would never have closure. I hope readers think what would they do if they were put in that position? I would have probably gone to the police.”
Each character has a connection in this psychological thriller. A book quote shows how almost all of them are unsympathetic, “In every story there is a hero and a villain, but sometimes one person can be both.”
The only exception would be detective Kaiser Brody, who strives to get justice. He, Angela and Geo were considered the Three Musketeers in high school. What they all had in common was an obsession for each other: Calvin desiring Geo all for himself, Geo wanting to be Angela’s constant sidekick, Kaiser’s unrequited love for Geo through the years and Angela the “mean girl.”
This dark novel exemplifies how easy it is to make bad decisions that can never be taken back. Fourteen years ago, Geo was complicit in her friend’s death. She watched her boyfriend, Calvin, kill and bury Angela, keeping the dark secret from the police, her friends and her family. Because of this, Geo went to prison where she suffered unbearable hardships.
“I wrote Geo’s prison experience and was influenced by a number of sources,” Hillier said. “For years I was obsessed with the TV show ‘Lock Up.’ I spent a day taking a tour of a correction facility for women outside Seattle to see how they lived and interacted. It has its own world that can be very bleak and monotonous. I think I would be like Geo and adapt to the situation because we are both scrappy. Just as she did I would make friends with the right people. I also talked with someone who used to work in corrections. She told me how manipulative inmates are, many deviant and evil. Given the right circumstances, it could bring out the worst in people.”
It is a riveting story that readers will not want to put down. Just when people think they have the plot figured out, Hillier throws a curveball with an even more sinister and darker plot. Murder, lies, grief, obsession, guilt, friendship and distorted love add up to make a gripping story.