The Lonely Hearts Hotel
By Heather O’Neill
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Genre: Historical Fiction/Magical Realism
With echoes of The Night Circus, a spellbinding story about two gifted orphans in love with each other since they can remember whose childhood talents allow them to rewrite their future.
The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a love story with the power of legend. An unparalleled tale of charismatic pianos, invisible dance partners, radicalized chorus girls, drug-addicted musicians, brooding clowns, and an underworld whose economy hinges on the price of a kiss. In a landscape like this, it takes great creative gifts to thwart one’s origins. It might also take true love.
Two babies are abandoned in a Montreal orphanage in the winter of 1910. Before long, their talents emerge: Pierrot is a piano prodigy; Rose lights up even the dreariest room with her dancing and comedy. As they travel around the city performing clown routines, the children fall in love with each other and dream up a plan for the most extraordinary and seductive circus show the world has ever seen.
Separated as teenagers, sent off to work as servants during the Great Depression, both descend into the city’s underworld, dabbling in sex, drugs and theft in order to survive. But when Rose and Pierrot finally reunite beneath the snowflakes after years of searching and desperate poverty the possibilities of their childhood dreams are renewed, and they’ll go to extreme lengths to make them come true. Soon, Rose, Pierrot and their troupe of clowns and chorus girls have hit New York, commanding the stage as well as the alleys, and neither the theater nor the underworld will ever look the same.
With her musical language and extravagantly realized world, Heather O’Neill enchants us with a novel so magical there is no escaping its spell.
I really had no expectations going into The Lonely Hearts Hotel. I admit this was a case of cover envy that drew me to a convincing blurb, although I tire so of seeing books compared to The Night Circus. Would I compare this to Morgenstern’s beautiful debut? Maybe in the fact that both embrace historical fiction and magical realism in a very unique manner, but most similarities cease there as there are some very stark contrasts. That is not to say that Lonely Hearts is without rewards though.
This is the story of two orphans, Pierrot and Rose. Having grown up in a Montreal orphanage together, they have developed a close relationship and made plans for a future with one another. Pierrot is a talented pianist and Rose a dancing comedian that easily charms any audience. Together they will take the world by storm with the greatest circus known to man. But when they find themselves sent off separately as teenagers to work as servants, their lives take different paths. Both find themselves in a world of dangerous activity, sex, drugs and multiple hardships. So when years later, fate chooses to reunite them, naturally they will stop at nothing to make their dreams a reality.
“If there was one thing responsible for ruining lives, it was love.”
What I appreciated..
- O’neill’s approach to Pierrot and Rose’s story is perhaps one of the most brazen and graphic explorations of an abusive life in an orphanage and the hardships of life leading up to the Great Depression that I have ever encountered. The result is one that is highly effective and will for the same reason be extremely difficult. But perhaps for this purpose, discomfort is of the most benefit.
- Pierrot and Rose are young dreamers facing impossible odds. Their evolution and growth is a process of hope and heartache that leaves a lasting impression and easily carries the reader through a significant range of emotions.
- The setting is beautifully constructed through a sequence of magical realism, vivid descriptions and lyrical prose that transports the reader into the heart of the story and the early 1900s.
- The Lonely Hearts Hotel combines elements of the whimsical with moments of pure tragedy, setting a very unique pace that I found to be highly engaging.
- Through the good and bad, O’Neill tackles powerful themes in a head-on manner that is admirable and effective.
“Love was a paltry, meek thing; it was guilt that spoke in such operatic statements.”
Challenges some may encounter..
- Please do not be mislead by the synopsis. This is by no means an easy or light-hearted read. It will present with many heavy themes and possible triggers that include: sexual abuse, physical abuse, drug use, and violence.
- This is not a story full of happy endings and it will not be for everyone. The raw approach, contrasting themes, and pace can make for a challenging read when unexpected. This is the rare case where I would advise exploring a few spoiler-free reviews beforehand.
The Lonely Hearts Hotel promises something magical but perhaps delivers it in a very unexpected manner. A tragic story laced with stunning moments of hope and love, it is sure to leave a permanent mark on all who encounter it. But I suspect that the end results will truly be of the very personal and greatly varying, as it makes no pretenses about the harshness of the world contained within. For myself, this was a captivating tale of love, loss, and self-discovery that I will carry with me always.
Pairs well with a lovely jasmine rose or light floral blend.
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