I did not like The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill. That’s an understatement. I found the book to be annoying, miserable and nihilistic. Anyone else would have put the novel down after 50 pages, maybe at the point where an 11-year-old boy is repeatedly raped by a nun, or a girl is beaten black and blue (by the same nun). But no… I kept on going. I’m not proud of this, my ability to persevering with a book I actively dislike is an ongoing issue in my reading life.
The story opens with the abandonment of two babies – a boy and a girl – in a Montreal orphanage during the winter of 1910. As they grow up it becomes clear that these children have exceptional talent. The boy, nicknamed Pierrot, is a piano prodigy and the girl, nicknamed Rose, is a brilliant dancer and has a keen sense of comic timing. Together they are sublime. So much so that the Mother Superior of the orphanage, in an attempt to earn some coin, sends the two children out to the homes of the rich to perform. Inevitably Pierrot and Rose fall in love. Subsumed by happiness the two plan to forge a destiny together once they’re old enough to leave the orphanage.
But as the Mother Superior points out quite early in the piece —
— happiness always led to tragedy. [The Mother Superior] had no idea why people valued the emotion and pursued it. It was nothing more than a temporary state of inebriation that led a person to make the worst decisions. There wasn’t a person who had experienced life on this planet who wouldn’t admit that sin and happiness were bedmates, were inextricably linked. Were there ever any two states of being that were so attracted to each other, were always seeking out each other’s company? They were a match made not in heaven but in hell.
What an optimistic view of humanity and the world. If only Heather O’Neill didn’t agree with such fundamentalist fervour as evidenced by the abuse she inflicts on her two protagonists.
As I noted earlier, a Sister at the orphanage, Eloise, repeatedly rapes 11 year-old Pierrot and belts the living shit out of Rose if she sees the girl speak to, look at or think of Pierrot. (At one point the beatings get so bad that the Mother Superior is compelled to stop Eloise. Can’t have the rich people noticing the bruises on their star performer). And just as Pierrot and Rose are nearing the end of their “stay” at the orphanage they are abruptly separated – without either knowing where the other has gone. Pierrot becomes the ward of an old, rich man looking for companionship (fortunately it’s platonic). Rose becomes the Governess of two little shits whose father runs organised crime in Montreal.
Throughout all this, the Mother Superior’s words come back to haunt Rose and Perriot. Spending three hundred pages looking for each other they will face all sorts of awfulness – whether it’s drug addiction or poverty or having to feature in pornos to earn money. And even when they do, finally, cross paths there’s no happy ending to be found.
This is a wretched, cynical novel. There’s an attempt on O’Neill’s part to obscure the rot by adopting a twee, quirky tone and presenting peculiar set-pieces such as Rose search for Pierrot, which involves checking out the shows of all the clowns performing in Montreal. It’s a style, that when it works, can create a fairy-tale / story-book type atmosphere. When it doesn’t work, like here, it reads as artificial and insincere. As a consequence it’s hard to feel any sympathy for Rose and Perriot because nothing about them seems real or grounded even though they are exposed to some awful shit. Perriot’s otherworldly brilliance at the piano – he just has to tickle the keys and people fall in love with his music – and his Byronesque attitude toward women had me wanting to kick him in the nuts. As for Rose, O’Neill does her character a disservice by having men initially view her as plain or ugly or OK, but not pretty and then, moments later, seeing her as the most beautiful creature on the planet. So much so that rich and powerful (and generally vile) men can’t help but be besotted with her.
I did wonder whether this was a deliberate attempt to subvert the star-crossed lover narrative that we’ve see in recent novels like The Night Circus – which this novel is compared to – All the Light We Cannot See. A romance we want to see succeed because the two lovers are so perfect for each other, but for external reasons fails to happen. O’Neill, contrary to those books*, does allow Rose and Pierrot to marry and have a life. But because the philosophy of this novel is that happiness ends in disaster and tragedy, it (spoilers) ends badly. Rather than imagine what it might have been like for our two star crossed lovers to have a life together, O’Neill provides us with an answer – it sucks. If that is the point of this book, then fuck that for a game of cards. Or to be less sweary, I have no problems with depressing fiction – I’ve just praised a couple of unhappy novels recently – it just has to be earned, and as Rose and Pierrot are abused from a young age, with only the smallest of reprieves from time to time, nothing seems natural about their relationship.
Still, it would appear that other people do like a bit of misery and nihilism in their love stories, given the book’s popularity and it’s long listing on the Bailey’s Book Prize.** I, on the other hand, should not have finished this book. But I did. Let’s never speak of it again.
* Though I may be misremembering The Night Circus.
** Talking of the Bailey’s longlist I’ll be interested to see what others make of it – that is some of the book bloggers I follow who are reading the longlist. And when I say book bloggers, I really mean Simon Savidge.