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.
Eugenia Zukerman is a flutist, writer, video blogger, the music director of Clarion Concerts in Columbia County, as well as the artistic director of Classics on Hudson.
The Lonely Hearts Hotel
By Heather O’Neill
Riverhead. 400 pp. $27