Heather O’Neill explored the short-story form in her previous book, Daydreams of Angels, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize. A departure from her first two titles, the best-selling novels Lullabies for Little Criminals (winner of the 2007 Canada Reads competition) and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (itself shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2014) the generic form of Daydreams of Angels fit more closely with O’Neill’s fantastically meandering sensibility, which focuses largely on poverty and wonderment in pre-digital Montreal.
O’Neill does not completely abandon the trappings of short fiction in her third novel, which also returns to her preferred Montreal setting. The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a big, episodic work that unfolds over decades and centres on the love between two orphans, Pierrot and Rose. Folding Daydreams-style vignettes into a cohesive overall plot, the novel’s success resides in its deeply loveable protagonists navigating a world of brutality and melancholy.
The Lonely Hearts Hotel opens with the sexually coerced conceptions of Pierrot and Rose, two babies born in the era of the First World War, both of whom miraculously survive after being, respectively, revived after stillbirth and abandoned in the snow. Growing up in an orphanage among repressive and violent nuns, the two intrinsically dreamy and performative children are drawn to each other from a very young age, eventually getting trotted out to perform music and dance for the rich families who donate money to the facility.
Pierrot and Rose develop a plan for a travelling clown show called The Snowflake Icicle Extravaganza, and vow to each other that one day the two of them will be married and rich and famous. But at age 15, they are separated when the Depression hits and the orphanage overflows. The adventures, passions, and horrors the two characters will face are just beginning.
The novel’s combination of short scenes and long timeline make it an expansive, leisurely read best experienced in spread-out morsels. With 71 mostly self-contained chapters, The Lonely Hearts Hotel is replete with the asides, whimsies, and memorable secondary anti-heroes and villains that will be familiar to any reader of O’Neill’s previous works. There is a pimp who aggressively courts one of Pierrot’s girlfriends; a gangster tough who unwittingly turns into a love-struck Bohemian; and an enraptrured squirrel believing an apple to be a signal from God. These episodes, and others like them, more than carry the hefty weight of the book’s 450 pages.
McMahon, an underworld boss, and Sister Eloise, a predatory nun at the orphanage, comprise the principal villains. Inverses of each other in some ways, they also function as stand-ins for the neglectful authorities who fail to take care of their less powerful charges. The most fascinating and melancholic aspects of the plot involve the (many) lovers Pierrot and Rose take when they are not together. When Rose consummates her relationship with the unfeeling mob boss, she thinks, “hating herself was part of what made it feel so good.”
At the novel’s emotional core, though, is the love between Rose and Pierrot; this remains true notwithstanding the fact that they’re separated for much of the book. They dream of each other, and their losses and gains unfold side by side. Rose becomes dependent on the rich and cruel underworld mob boss, then gets a job performing in porn films after leaving him. Pierrot gets hooked on heroin and moves in with a sweet but jealous prostitute. When they do eventually reunite, Rose admits her acting past, to which Pierrot says: “Oh, I saw you in one of those movies! You were splendid!”
Finding each other again is only one episode in the rollick and tumult of the book — the entire second quarter hinges on their separation. Once they have reconnected and moved in together, they continue their mad, shifty, dreamy plans. Fortune falls upon Pierrot and Rose just as often as hardship and poverty snatches it away. A sense of fable and fairy tale pervades throughout, with playfulness born from desperation.
Grotesqueness and pleasure run together in The Lonely Hearts Hotel. And though there are some overwhelmingly sad scenes, this is not, on the whole, a dark book. O’Neill retains a sense of whimsy by filtering horrible experiences through flights of fancy and the dreams of her central characters.
O’Neill’s previous novels were superb and moving, and their plots did not tend to feel overloaded. This book is wider in scope but its sprawling story is well organized; the twin jewels that drive the work are the cast of sad, enormous-hearted characters and the hoodlummy old Montreal setting. Some readers may be put off by the novel’s signature combination of melancholy and whimsy; for others, The Lonely Hearts Hotel will appear as a successful and touching story.