by Heather O’Neill
I think that The Lonely Hearts Hotel is going to be a tough sell for a lot of people, largely due to its explicit portrayal of sexual violence, but I think the author’s decision to explore it in such a way has to do with a commentary on perversion in society––though I struggle to hit on what her end message was, if anything. It seems to relate to innocence, but it’s a bit more complicated than a simple corruption narrative. Though regular sexual assault at a young age greatly influences one character’s perception of sex and sexuality, the loss of innocence seems less about perversion in general, and more to do with those who avoid the issue and the shame associated with it. For, I don’t think anybody in The Lonely Hearts Hotel is portrayed as being free of perversion; the innocent seem to just be more self-aware. (I will concede that the clowns we meet partway through are largely free of it, so perhaps they represent that lost innocence. Or maybe love is the thing that frees us from the ugly side of our perversions? I told you, it’s complicated.)
Anyway, perhaps a step back toward the more concrete is in order, to things that I’m at least more confident in discussing. Let’s start with what it’s about. (The actual story isn’t as obscene as I’m probably making it sound, believe it or not.) The Lonely Hearts Hotel follows Rose, a gifted dancer and dramatist, and Pierrot, a piano prodigy. Abandoned as babies, the two perform for Montreal’s upper-class in the 1920s to raise money for their orphanage. After becoming separated in their teens, both learn to survive the city’s seedy underbelly, never forgetting their dreams, or each other, even as life seems to grow more and more hopeless.
One of the biggest issues I had with The Lonely Hearts Hotel was the lack of sincerity I felt when reading. While this was present with multiple aspects of the story, such as the way some characters’ relationships develop or our brief excursions into descriptions of society during the Great Depression, it was especially apparent when dealing with Pierrot’s heroin addiction. In the author’s attempts to describe addiction in a poetic fashion, she distances herself from a seeming authenticity, made striking due to her dissimilarity to frank, first-hand accounts, such as Jack Black’s You Can’t Win and William Burroughs’ Junky. (I’ll talk about the latter in a few weeks.) The other major problem I had was the overt nature of O’Neill’s storytelling, and it’s kind of weird. We’re treated to a wonderful portrayal of concepts and emotions through actions of the characters––what I always say is a great thing––but then we’re explicitly told how they feel or how we should feel. I mean, I was on board with the whole feminist message after we both see the things women had to go through to survive and how terrible men can be to them, so why did we have to repeatedly be reminded of all the great things women could do if this wasn’t happening? And having two characters thinking about other things while having sex was tragic, but it was lessened when we were given a tour through one’s guilty thoughts afterward; wouldn’t it have been enough if he looked sad or defeated or pathetic in some way instead? I guess she didn’t trust us to get there on our own, but I really think that having a few readers somehow not reach those conclusions would be less detrimental to the story than leading us there in such a fashion.
Keep in mind that, despite my complaints, O’Neill’s prose is in top form throughout The Lonely Hearts Hotel, and her characterization is strong, particularly closer to the start of the book. I think this was just another case of my expectations being held too high after encountering another wonderful book by the author, Daydreams of Angels in this case. In that one, the strong prose and characterization went hand in hand with subtlety and honesty. I guess not every book can be the whole package, but I know O’Neill has it in her, so it feels so, so disappointing when it doesn’t materialize.