Imagine a mashup of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, the musical whimsy of 2016’s Academy Award-winning La La Land, and heroin, and you get Heather O’Neill’s The Lonely Hearts Hotel. This rather unique love story set in Depression-era Montreal is the most perfect balance of sadness and fantasy with a touch of humor that someone with as odd a sense of entertainment as mine could ask for.
SYNOPSIS: The Lonely Hearts Hotel introduces us to two children who are abandoned shortly after birth to grow up in an orphanage with brutal nuns where all the boys are named Joseph and all the girls are named Marie. Two babies, nicknamed Pierrot and Rose, grow up to be quite exceptional performers. Pierrot is a prodigious piano player and Rose’s dancing captivates anyone watching. They bring joy into the orphanage with their performances but are usually punished swiftly for it due to the Mother Superior’s belief that orphans are wicked and thus should not be allowed to enjoy anything, ever. Rose and Pierrot are eventually taken out of the orphanage and separated for the first time since birth and thus begins their journey to reconnect with their childhood love.
On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much about the novel that would set it apart from other romances. There’s the central romance, the lovers are separated, they try to find each other again. It sounds exactly like the kind of ooey-gooey, feel good story strewn with longing looks and passionate kisses that I avoid like the plague. But underneath the surface of love and passion where the birds sing and children laugh is a pretty saddening but ultimately satisfying story. I’ve said before that romance is probably my least favorite genre, so I was apprehensive when I bought Lonely Hearts (what really made me buy it was that it was a signed copy and at the time I didn’t have any signed books, so that was pretty cool), but for the sake of expanding the genres of my reading history I gave it a shot. And, boy, am I glad I did. I can’t even begin to explain how much I ended up enjoying this novel, but since this is a blog and explaining how much I like the books I read is the purpose of this blog, let’s get into it.
Let me warn you that this is not at all the kind of book that typical lovers of romance would want to read. It doesn’t focus nearly as much on the love between Rose and Pierrot so much as the darkness the paths of their lives lead them down as they find their way back to each other. Lonely Hearts is filled with drug addiction, sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, sexism, and murder. Now that I think about it, fans of Game of Thrones would get a real kick out of this book. Those who don’t shy away from trauma or flinch in the face of recurring despair.
I can see how someone could find this book downright disturbing and not worth the sadness you have to get through just to finish it. At one point I had to ask myself if this could even really be considered a romance novel, it’s just so… dark. The first thing you read about is the incestuous rape of a child that results in an unwanted pregnancy and gives us the piano prodigy, Pierrot. Literally, this happens in the first few pages. There isn’t a bit of allusion to prepare readers for the madness that is these orphans’ lives. O’Neill’s writing style neatly and politely presents heavy, depressing topics and then breezes right past them with the use of colorful metaphors without really giving you the chance to process what just happened before moving on to the next scene. Tragedies occur and then they are gone. O’Neill doesn’t let readers stew in the sadness for even a second, which, as a lover of detail and stewing in emotions, was jarring for me at first. By the end of the book, though, I realized that’s just how you have to read this kind of story. If she took the time to allow Rose and Pierrot to reflect on their unfortunate lives the book likely would’ve been twice as long, and at 389 pages (a good 150-200 of those pages being dedicated to clown show, of all things, that I will discuss soon) the book was long enough. Though I usually ask for all the details, for this particularly story I didn’t mind the lack thereof too much.
If anything the brevity of the explanation of abuse and misfortune that Rose and Pierrot experience is reflective of the characters themselves. Neither of them are particularly introspective people, at least not when discussing their pasts. They aren’t the type to torment themselves by reliving the sorrow of their lives and when they do decide to relive those sorrows, it’s only for a brief moment. It quickly ends when they embrace some vice like sex with a married employer or a heroin needle to take their minds off their pasts. Rose and Pierrot obviously don’t think the past is worth dwelling on, and the writing shows that. So this isn’t the most compelling book I’ve ever read in terms of descriptive writing, but its dark content keeps it from being a nonsensical love story between two weirdos and a bunch of clowns.
Speaking of clowns, disturbing as this story was, my only real issue with Lonely Hearts wasn’t the abuse, nor the drugs, nor the crass language, but the clowns. The second half of the story revolves almost solely around an incredibly successful clown show that Rose has dreamt of since she was a child. I know nothing about Depression-era entertainment in Montreal, but I guess clowns were a pretty big deal back then and the last 200 or so pages of the novel revolve around an absurd amalgamation of clown acts that combines Rose and Pierrot’s talents: the Snowflake Icicle Extravaganza. At first I was frustrated with the clown subplot. The clowns are introduced near the end of the first half of the novel, where the book easily could have just ended, but they take over the latter half and we spend the last thirty or so chapters reading about a clown show. Which was just weird. At one point you’re reading about clowns and heroin within the same few pages. Again, that’s just the kind of nonsensical stuff you have to get used to with a book like this. Whimsy and despair are the yin and yang of this novel, after all.
All that being said, while Lonely Hearts is shocking and blunt and dark, it’s also wondrous and fantastical and dreamy. It’s the kind of book that I know, should it ever be turned into a film, would have an incredible soundtrack that you couldn’t help but slow dance and feel the urge to cry to because it’s so sad but so happy. It’s so much more than a story about finding love, but one about resilience and living without fear of retaliation or rejection. O’Neill creates characters so pathetic yet strong that you can’t help but to root for them right until the poignant, but terse end.
I’m aware I’ve called this book disturbing more than anything, but I really did enjoy reading it. Perhaps I emphasized the darker bits to prepare anyone considering reading it for how bleak it can get since no one prepared me for it, but all in all, this odd, sad, foolish, triumphant story was a great read and certainly one I won’t forget.