The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a rare indulgence in contemporary fiction. Offering a world that’s equally real and imagined, Heather O’Neill’s latest novel fashions a love story set in historical Montreal that spans the life of two unusual orphans.
As children raised in harsh conditions, Rose and Pierrot oppose the cruel reality of life by embracing a fantastical world of make-believe. They bloom into artists and performers—excelling in music, dancing, comedy and acting. The chemistry in their performance mirrors their connection in life, and it seems fated that Rose and Pierrot will spend their lives loving each another. But when they’re separated as teenagers during the Great Depression, they begin parallel paths deep into Montreal’s underworld. When they finally reunite, will the magic of the stage and the love they shared as children be enough to save them from themselves?
All at once, The Lonely Hearts Hotel is whimsical, melancholy, tragic and delightful—a wonderful feat that recreates the ambivalence of life. Throughout the novel, the bleakest of realities are colored by magic, and the most joyful moments are cloaked in subtle gloom. The novel’s many addictions—drugs, power, even love and music—are juxtaposed against the presence of invisible bears, sad clowns, clairvoyant occurrences and apples made of jewels. But the intricate details of The Lonely Hearts Hotel do much more than surprise and entertain; they share the lives of characters we can’t help but fascinatingly follow. The joy and adoration between Rose and Pierrot form the novel’s core, and the fact that their love story is shown through shades of mysticism, absurdity and hardship accentuates O’Neill’s ability to tell a story—and tell it distinctively.
The Lonely Hearts Hotel is unlike any novel I’ve ever read. Though it has similar themes and sensations as William Blake’s “The Tyger” and even Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, Moulin Rouge!, O’Neill’s particular mix of magical realism, comic tragedy and romance makes it a highly original work of fiction. Is this novel an idyllic fairy tale of stage magic and romance, or a surreal exploration of sadness, sensuality and addiction? For all you ambitious readers, I’m happy to report that The Lonely Hearts Hotel is both.