A different kind of love story
If you were to go to sleep and dream of life in early 20th century Montreal, Heather O’Neill’s “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” is what you might dream.
The Giller-shortlisted author’s new novel has all the absurd, frightening, fantastical qualities of a midnight reverie — complete with depressed clowns, dancing bears, lunatic nuns and smitten mobsters — and with a similar power to haunt.
The epic tale, told in short, exquisite bursts of chapters, begins in 1914 with the birth of two babies. A 12-year-old turns up at a Hôpital de Misericorde with a swollen belly, delivers a stillborn-looking boy who miraculously survives, and leaves him in the care of the convent.
Meanwhile, a terrified teen pays a neighbour to find a home for her newborn girl, who’s subsequently abandoned in the snow in Mount Royal Park, narrowly escaping death.
Nicknamed Pierrot for his pale skin and wide smile, and Rose for her red cheeks, the children are raised together in Misericorde’s orphanage, their spirits somehow untrammeled by the reams of abuse they’re subjected to.
Pierrot becomes an accomplished pianist, while Rose delights the other children with her splendidly strange skits. The pair’s bond is cemented when they’re sent out to perform in high society drawing rooms.
Rose and Pierrot promise each other that as adults they’ll travel the world and mount an astonishing spectacle, the Snowflake Icicle Extravaganza.
Sensing their growing attachment, the nuns keep them apart, but they cannot keep them from falling in love.
Separated finally by the Great Depression, Pierrot is adopted by a mad, lonely millionaire and Rose is sent to work as a governess in a grand home.
When these arrangements fall apart, both find themselves driven into the darkness of Montreal’s underworld, where Rose becomes the mistress of a criminal boss and Pierrot lives with a prostitute, succumbing to a heroin addiction. Throughout all, the pair pine for each other.
When their much-anticipated reunion takes place, it does nothing to disrupt the bittersweet mood of the book.
Great joy and immense sadness follow as their story unfolds, and the two set about stag- ing the circus they’d envisioned as children.
It would be hard to overstate here just how the good the writing is in “The Lonely Hearts Hotel.” For it is stunningly, stunningly good.
“The Lonely Hearts Hotel” is a feat of imagination, accomplished through the tiny, marvellous details she scatters across the page.
“They continued to tour around the city into the spring,” O’Neill writes in an early chapter. “Colours began appearing everywhere on what had previously been a white page. The blossoms were like underwear blown off the laundry lines.” Or, elsewhere: “The sky became darker and darker shades of blue, as if it were applying more shades of eyeshadow, until it was finally sufficiently mysterious to go out on a date.”
And consider, if you will, this description of the French cabaret singer Edith Piaf: “She stepped out onto the stage, looking as though her house had just been bombed with her entire family inside it. She trembled while she sang. She held her hands up in the air as if everyone was a lover who was leaving her. Look at her! Rose thought. She was tiny, abused and drunk. She had come all the way from Paris with her songs. She was proof that a woman could take as much from life as a man.”
Everywhere in this novel, woven into the tapestry of whimsy and wonder, are threads of subversion. The reader never quite forgets that Rose is the true hero here, capable of rescuing both herself and her lover, of matching the ambition of powerful men, and of meeting violence with violence. (Plus recruiting an army of feminist chorus girls to help her.) Pierrot is an artist, his music the mark he leaves on the world. Rose is a radical. Her life is her creation.
Both resist the weight of their past — even as it points them toward destruction. Both struggle to be free. “All children are really orphans,” O’Neill writes. “At heart, a child has nothing to do with its parents, its background, its last name, its gender, its family trade. It is a brandnew person, and it is born with the only legacy that each individual inherits when they open their eyes in this world: the inalienable right to be free.”
All of this makes for a startlingly different kind of love story. But one that’s nothing short of brilliant.
‘The Lonely Hearts Hotel,’ by Heather O’Neill, HarperCollins, 400 pages, $32.99.