The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

“I think she’s sad because she never fell in love. Except she needn’t worry, because love doesn’t exist.”
“How do you know that?”
Rose wiped a large snowflake from her eyelash and raised her head to try to catch one with her tongue. Pierrot put his hands out to catch some.
“I read it in a Russian novel,” she said, looking at Pierrot again. “The Russians have figured everything out because their winters are so long. It makes them so thoughtful.”

A blend of whimsy, magic and sadness, The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill is a melancholic love story involving orphans, gangsters, circus performers, drug dealers and an imaginary bear; where the lines of innocence and seduction are blurred; and thievery, drugs and sexuality are ordinary ways of life.

Set in moody Montreal during the depression era, talented orphans, Rose and Pierrot, are the novel’s heroine and hero, and readers follow their cohesive, yet turbulent journey as the two navigate a world that is both brutal and fantastical.

Growing up in an orphanage under the care of vile and wicked nuns, the imaginative and dreamy performers are drawn to each other at a young age, and soon are sent to perform music and dance (Pierrot is a pianist, and Rose a dancer) acts to rich city folk in exchange for donations to the orphanage.  After one of their performances and under a snowy sky,  Rose and Pierrot develop a plan to create a travelling clown show called The Snowflake Icicle Extravaganza, and vow to one another that they will marry, become rich and famous, and live happily ever after. At age 15, these star-crossed lovers are separated; Rose is sent to be a governess to children of a wealthy gangster businessman, and Pierrot is sent to live with an old wealthy aristocrat.

What follows are stories of secondary characters that are intertwined in Rose and Pierrot’s narrative after life at the orphanage. But, the beauty of this novel, and its emotional core is the never-ending love Rose and Pierrot have for one another despite being separated for most of the book. Finally, the two are reconnected, and their dreams come true, but not without a new kind of pain.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a provocative and gritty read that may not be for everyone, but if you do happen upon this magical book, the dream-like narrative and loveable protagonists, will linger even after the novel is over.

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing Heather O’Neill speak as part of The Canadian Author Series in Port Colborne, Ontario. Not only is she a master storyteller, she is hilarious – the room was captivated by her words. If you have the opportunity to hear you speak, go.

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