In Heather O’Neill latest novel, The Lonely Hearts Hotel, two babies — a boy and a girl, are found abandoned outside in the cold winter Montreal night in 1910. Raised in a Catholic orphanage under the strict of its operating nuns, the children are given prophetically apt names: the boy is named Pierrot, the girl Rosie.
As they age, the outlandish, goofy Pierrot pays perfect homage to his stock French clown inspired name. Possessed with an innate, untaught ability to play the piano with mesmerizing effect, he soon catches the eye of Rosie, who with red cheeks showcases her genuine inner warmth. Precocious, witty, and graced with a sterling sense of physical performance skills, Rosie quickly forms an inexorable bond with Pierrot. Their knack and passion for providing entertainment to those suffering around them are gifts that prove to be both blessings and curses amid the novel’s daunting, omnipresent Depression setting. Old-world Montreal and its pathetic inhabitants croak to life, eking survival any way befitting their means. Even as Pierrot and Rosie are adopted and their budding, unrealized relationship is prematurely severed, their unflappable resilience, personified in their abstractly humorous and positive perspectives, inspire and comfort those they encounter.
As anyone who has read Montreal-native O’Neill’s previous novels Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night knows, every dash of fairy tale fortune that befalls a protagonist, hardship doubles twofold. Keeping in touch with the impoverished state of the times they were born into, Rosie and Pierrot find themselves floating through intoxicating prose while simultaneously combating the dark foes of penury, sexual abuse, drug addiction, and pornography. True to her inimitable style, O’Neill navigates this treacherous style with masterful skill, treating readers with an addictive and inexplicably pleasant and inspiring read. There is humour and there is whimsical commentary as our heroes use hope and optimism like guiding lights to find each other again.
Also powerful, yet doubly worth mentioning about O’Neill’s latest work is the attention she pays to the gender roles of the time and how they are not so outwardly different to today. Align this novel with today’s powder-keg #metoo movement that has set ouroutdated misogynistic society ablaze, and this is a book demanding to be read. Equally heartwarming as it is heartbreaking, The Lonely Hearts Hotel is just as engrossing, if not more so than O’Neill’s previous books. Less heavy-handed with the metaphors that afflicted her predecessor, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, O’Neill has perfectly honed her style, compelling you to make sure your reading list includes a stay among her pages.