Review: The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

4 of 5 stars
Published February 2017

When a book review or advertisement for a book tells you it’s for fans of another book that was popular, be afraid. It’s a marketing tool that is very rarely true. The Lonely Hearts Hotel is compared to The Night Circus, a fantasy tale from a few years ago. It is not like that book. It is much darker and more graphic in part. Don’t expect the two to be anything alike, not even “echoes of” The Night Circus. The only thing they might have remotely in common is clowns.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel starts off straight away with a grim and tragic instance of abuse and doesn’t really let up much for awhile. Two children are abandoned to an orphanage in the outskirts of Montreal in 1910. A boy, Pierrot and a girl, Rose do not have happy childhoods at the institution where they suffer hunger, cold and many kinds of abuse at the hands of the nuns. But they each have a unique spirit that keeps them from knuckling under the pressure and they make friends with each other. The nuns don’t like that but exploit their talents for fund raising until the decided to separate them. There is a period then where Rose and Pierrot get on with their new lives and the reader wonders and hopes that they will find their way back to each other. They do, of course, but the course of love doesn’t run smoothly and there are more bumps in the road through their lives.

Were their lives better once out of the orphanage? Not really. They grew up and were finally able to make their own decisions and choices in life, good and bad, but reality keeps biting them hard. There’s an inner strength to both Rose and Pierrot to help them overcome one hurdle after another until it isn’t anymore.

There’s a love story but it’s not told through rose coloured glasses. It’s sometimes bloody,  painful , and graphic  as is the sometimes crude language.  Some may find it offensive but in the world where Rose and Pierrot live, it’s accurate, the realistic way people who live by the seats of their pants talk and live.   It might sound depressing, and sometimes it is. And yet…and yet…Rose and Pierrot are finding ways to improve their situations. Rose in particular doesn’t see any reason why women (and this takes place in the 1930s, just for context) can’t do whatever they want in life and sets about finding a way to make her dream come true. I did find it a bit difficult to take in the lengths that she would go to at times to make it happen, mind you.

It isn’t easy to read but it’s told like a tapestry, the colours and words and scenes all woven together.  It’s not for everyone and you should know what to expect before you open the first pages. It’s sad and a bit grim. Even the ending is not uplifting or optimistic, not really, but I found it a compelling story, if tragic.  O’Neill has a wonderfully descriptive turn of phrase which she uses liberally and the prose is some of her best.

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