By Laura Smith
“You can pick up a book but a book can throw you across the room.”
—Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects, p.122
The Lonely Hearts Hotel is the most recent novel by Canadian author, Heather O’Neil. It is the story of Pierrot and Rose; orphans, who both, in differing circumstances, nearly die at birth but miraculously survive against the odds. O’Neil’s novel begins against the backdrop of Pierrot’s and Rose’s childhoods, spent together at a Montreal orphanage in the early part of the twentieth-century. Both the nuns and the other children at the orphanage recognize that Pierrot and Rose are special; through music, dance, and play they manage to cultivate pockets of joy out of their dismal realities. While the nuns do their best to stifle Pierrot’s and Rose’s flourishing (as well as their connection), the other children delight in the magic that is brought into their otherwise fragile and violent existences. From here, the novel follows the two protagonists as life takes them in differing yet equally dark directions. Despite their separation, both hold onto their childhood promise to one another of a shared future. Nineteen-thirties Montreal becomes the stage for make-believe, unlikely friendships, poverty, theft, theater-troops, addiction, sex, and mafia-life. Written with unparalleled imagery in the form of metaphor and simile, O’Neil’s prose come alive in the imagination like an illustrated fable stretching out before the reader, spontaneously coming into being as each page is turned. When a nun is described as reminding Pierrot of “a glass of milk” and “clean sheets blowing in the wind at the exact moment when the water evaporated from them and they became dry and light and easy again,” the reader is not tripped up by this strange mix of subject/object but instead sees the sunlight on those sheets, the rolling hills in the distance, and almost smells the fresh country air.
The Washington Post called The Lonely Hearts Hotel “virtually cinematic.” Indeed, it unfolds in the reader’s mind as if on stage, in the darkened theater, and in vivid color. This book is a fairy tale and, more specifically, a fairy tale for adults. The book is, among many things, an examination of how trauma persists and yet, how it can be overcome, transformed into another energy rather than denied. Themes of vulnerability, pain, guilt, shame, love—and most profoundly—what it might mean to be free, linger well after the reader closes the book. The novel addresses sex from the rapture of lovers, to the indifference of prostitution and pornography, to the horrors of assault and abuse. O’Neil creatively plays with the inversion of gender roles and with notions of female desire. The Lonely Hearts Hotel succeeds in the difficult task of intertwining the most destined of love stories, a true romance, with a fierce and unrelenting feminism. Rose “felt the grandeur of being responsible for oneself. She was independent, and her actions had enormous consequences.” The lean Pierrot, on the other hand, a Heathcliff-like lover without all the possession and brooding, is the sort of young man whose fist “would probably [punch] like a pillow.” It turns out to be the clowns and gangsters of the story who, sharing a similarly acute perceptivity, best understand—perhaps better even than the protagonists themselves—the lovers’ connection.
The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a tale of survival and of the degrees of resilience. O’Neil unravels how, for better or worse, our interior worlds bring our exterior worlds into being. There is a Benjaminian-like understanding that it is precisely the very ruins of everyday life which point, paradoxically, to a larger “truth content.” This book is a magical vortex that draws the reader in (and will likely liquidate any plans you foolishly had foreseen for your day). The power of O’Neil’s work resides in the fact that, when the reader resurfaces from this other world, their own reality feels slightly different; it collides vertiginously with the fresh experience of this other imaginary space. With The Lonely Hearts Hotel, O’Neil proves that to conjure enchantment can be empowering rather than solely romantic. This novel, and in particular, its ending, is likely not only to stay with its readers but to shift and continue to reveal itself in different ways, across time, in its readers’ consciousnesses. This reader will take author Kelly Link’s advice now and go “read all the rest” of O’Neil’s work.
Writer’s Trust of Canada podcast: Author Heather O’Neil on The Lonely Hearts Hotel:
CBC Ideas with Paul Kennedy (O’Neil on Wisdom in Nonsense)
 Heather O’Neil, The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.14.
 For more on this, visit the Writer’s Trust of Canada link and hear O’Neil explain these themes.
 Heather O’Neil, The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.369.
 Ibid., p.323.