‘The Lonely Hearts Hotel,’’ a larger-than-life, gritty love story that reads like a fable, opens with a matter-of-fact depiction of a young girl’s incestuous rape by her older cousin, who impregnates and abandons her. This tone — in which violence is delivered deadpan and without shock or fanfare — sets the stage for Heather O’Neill’s unique voice, in which things sweet or cynical, disturbing or romantic, triumphant or tragic are all inextricable.
Born in 1914, Pierrot and Rose are raised by nuns in a Montreal orphanage that would make a Dickens novel read like the brochure to an elite summer camp. Fellow “exceptional” kids in a beyond-dreary environment where the spark is quite literally beaten out of them, the two are drawn to one another. For this, Rose suffers the wrath of Sister Eloïse, who has designs on Pierrot by the time he is 11 and “seduces” (a.k.a. rapes) him repeatedly, extracting promises from him that they will someday marry. Amid this hellscape, somehow Rose and Pierrot both discover their love of performance and entertaining the other children, and the nuns, mercenary as they are cruel, eventually allow them to perform for money in the homes of Montreal’s wealthy, strengthening their bond.
“The Lonely Hearts Hotel’’ is not surrealist or fantasy, but it does exist on a very edge of realism, unapologetically full of coincidences, near misses, and high drama that might often be considered “too much” in a literary novel. When Pierrot gets a position as the companion to a rich old alcoholic who treats him as a son, he must leave the orphanage without saying goodbye to Rose, kicking off many years of their longing for each other from afar, which dominates much of the middle of the novel. Rose is first the governess, then the mistress, of a powerful drug dealer, while Pierrot becomes addicted to heroin; their paths keep almost crossing through mutual acquaintances, often with their missing one another by mere minutes.
O’Neill pushes these coincidences past their novelty to the point that the pair’s eventual reunion feels as if it should be the novel’s end, but in fact the plot gets progressively wilder from there. Although Pierrot and Rose are clearly soul mates in the most romantic and unconditional sense, their relationship is doomed by the fact that Rose in particular hates her former lover, McMahon, more than she loves Pierrot or wants good things for herself. O’Neill’s ultimate terrain is the way demons of the past continue to haunt and dominate our choices even when we are faced with better options.
Rose is a more complex and nuanced character than Pierrot, even as Pierrot may be more likeable and seductive. The greatest strength of O’Neill’s work, however, is her wholly unique narrative voice, which is at once cool and panoramic, yet shockingly intimate and wisely philosophical. The novel brims with shimmering one-liners about gender, poverty, violence, sex, that stand out all the more jarringly in a novel that usually exerts a light, whimsical touch.
Almost all the forays into subversive depths exist in Rose’s sections, as O’Neill interrogates the predicament of a poor, beautiful young woman without a family during the Great Depression. Rose observes, “It was important to be a little bit stupid as a woman. It was important not to feel proud of yourself.” Yet she “couldn’t accept this” — a truth that propels much of the narrative trajectory.
O’Neill is particularly skilled at observations of sexuality. Remarks Rose (while she is briefly embroiled in starring in pornographic films): “A girl’s desire is like a pretty butterfly. And a man’s desire is like a butterfly net. His desire captures and kills her. He turns her into an object to be pinned on a corkboard. I don’t think I’m interested in the tyranny of the couple. I’m more interested in what a person does when they’re forced to be by themselves.” The reader may be intoxicated by the tender, passionate romance between Rose and Pierrot, but it is clear from the novel’s overarching philosophy that their joy cannot last.
“The Lonely Hearts Hotel’’ is overstuffed with plot, and at times seems to go on too long. Such epic storytelling may ultimately be less than wholly compatible with the distanced, often explanatory point of view that holds the reader at arm’s length while paradoxically at times “telling” too much.
Overall, however, “The Lonely Hearts Hotel’’ is that rare find: a novel you have never before read anything quite like. O’Neill, a genius at metaphor, and who tackles graphic and delicate topics with rare tenderness and even charm, has created a sweeping story with elements of historical fiction, romance, crime and noir, yet writes in a style that authoritatively claims all terrain in her reach as her own.
THE LONELY HEARTS HOTEL
By Heather O’Neill
Riverhead, 400 pp., $27Gina Frangello is the author of four books of fiction, including “Every Kind of Wanting’’ and “A Life in Men.’’ She teaches at the University of Illinois-Chicago.