Or­phaned prodi­gies come to­gether in an unglued world

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY EU­GE­NIA ZUKERMAN book­world@wash­post.com Eu­ge­nia Zukerman is a flutist, writer, video blog­ger, the mu­sic di­rec­tor of New York’s Clar­ion Con­certs in Columbia County, as well as the artis­tic di­rec­tor of Clas­sics on Hud­son.

To read Heather O’Neill’s daz­zling new novel, “The Lonely Hearts Ho­tel,” is to en­ter an en­chant­ing and po­etic world that is also amus­ing, trou­bling and of­ten las­civ­i­ous. O’Neill’s lively style is so filled with vivid de­scrip­tions and com­plex char­ac­ters that the reader’s ex­pe­ri­ence is vir­tu­ally cin­e­matic.

Set in Mon­treal and New York at the on­set of the Great De­pres­sion, “The Lonely Hearts Ho­tel” is the story of two foundlings, a boy and a girl, born of dif­fer­ent moth­ers. At the or­phan­age where they land, the boy is named Pier­rot “be­cause he was so pale and he al­ways had a rather stupid grin on his face.” The nuns, mean­while, are warned that “noth­ing good was ever meant to hap­pen” to the girl named Rose.

But, in fact, noth­ing good was ever meant to hap­pen to any of the chil­dren in this es­tab­lish­ment. “They were never quite cer­tain when a blow might fall,” O’Neill writes, “but they were struck by the nuns for vir­tu­ally any­thing.” The nuns be­lieve “the chil­dren were wicked just by virtue of ex­ist­ing.”

Some­how, though, Pier­rot and Rose sur­vive this cruel regime. Tal­ented and charis­matic, the two or­phans bring sun­shine into the lives of the other chil­dren. Pier­rot’s in­nate gift for mu­sic and Rose’s abil­ity to dance bonds them to­gether, but that con­nec­tion also gets them into trou­ble. Rose is beaten for the slight­est of­fense, while Pier­rot is sex­u­ally abused.

Nev­er­the­less, these two young peo­ple fall in love, and by the time they turn 13, their per­for­mance in a Christ­mas pageant in­cludes a pi­ano im­pro­vi­sa­tion by Pier­rot. “His play­ing sounded like laugh­ter in a school­yard,” O’Neill writes. “The tune sounded non­sen­si­cal at first, but then the au­di­ence picked up the tiny, del­i­cate, sweet melody that he was im­pro­vis­ing right be­fore their eyes. It sounded like the world’s most mag­i­cal jew­elry box had just been opened.” Rose dances to it. “They were so syn­chro­nized that it was hard for any­one in the au­di­ence to dis­cern whether Pier­rot was play­ing along to her danc­ing or whether she was danc­ing to his mu­sic.” Their per­for­mance thrills a wealthy woman who tells the Mother Su­pe­rior, “I must have those chil­dren per­form in my par­lor,” and soon they are per­form­ing all around Mon­treal.

The Great De­pres­sion leads to their sepa­ra­tion, spi­ral­ing them into par­al­lel lives in­volv­ing drugs, rob­bery, pros­ti­tu­tion and be­trayal. But their story is far from over. Re­united as World War II breaks out, the pair de­cide to har­ness their cre­ative tal­ents to cre­ate a re­vue that in­cludes clowns, show­girls, ac­ro­bats and mu­si­cians.

Dan­gers emerge, but in the hands of this bril­liant au­thor, even the ugli­est events are depicted with the most mu­si­cal ca­dences, soar­ing arias and sym­phonic res­o­lu­tions. Filled with in­spired twists and turns, the tale is ut­terly com­pelling, cre­at­ing a world where des­per­a­tion and love co­ex­ist.

THE LONELY HEARTS HO­TEL By Heather O’Neill River­head. 400 pp. $27

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.