I received The Lonely Hearts Hotel in exchange for an honest review
Heather O’Neill’s new Baileys award nominated novel completely blew my socks off. Between the blurb’s comparisons to The Night Circus and the Goodreads reviews slamming it for its controversial topics and crude nature, I had no idea what to expect. But as soon as I started the novel, it’s all there. Yes, it’s controversial, it opens with an incestuous scene and goes on to introduce orphans who are abused, punished and raped, and yet from the beginning there was something decadent, evocative and magical about this novel.
Set in Montreal during the Depression era, O’Neill sets the perfect scene for her bleak, brutal tale of two troubled orphans, isolated on a small island where the austere winters are palpable. The author explores the seedy underbelly of both Montreal and New York, and the glitz and glamour of the 1920s entertainment industry, making for something that’s both dark and escapist but, overall, incredibly atmospheric.
Despite the harsh themes and grim setting, the characters are the true light of this novel. I often talk about character development, but the author really has nailed it here – in Rose and Pierrot, she’s created not one but two incredibly unique, whimsical characters who are loveable, authentic and sympathetic. We follow the pair from their formative years in an orphanage through to adulthood and beyond. Throughout, many forces seem to be working to keep these star-crossed lovers apart.
It took me a while to get through this one, but that was solely because I wanted to savour it. Books like this don’t come along often. It’s unusual and controversial – there’s orphans, abuse, heroin, clowns, prostitutes and lots of sex. But if you can get past the initial shock at the frank manner in which many degrading events are portrayed, you may just find that this book is just as full of positive themes – there’s freedom, feminism, love and much more all wrapped up in beautifully poetic prose and a magical story.