The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

Reviewed by A. Irene Mangoutas

Heather O’Neill

The Lonely Hearts Hotel. HarperCollins, 2017

457 pp.


Heather O’Neill’s The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a strange and beautiful book. It begins with the First World War, and two war babies: Pierrot, the son of Ignorance and her cousin Thomas, “gone overseas to France to fight” (1); and Rose, left for dead in Mount Royal Park, by a woman who offered to “take your baby off you for fifty dollars” with the promise of a better life for the child than that of the city orphanage (5). Following these less-than-fortuitous beginnings, the novel follows Pierrot and Rose and their coming-of-age on the fringes of interwar Montreal. The novel moves from the pair’s early years in the orphanage to their unlikely involvement with both a circus troupe and a crime syndicate, with the lavish spending of the 1920s and the unemployment lines of the 1930s serving as a backdrop to Pierrot and Rose’s journey toward maturity.

The novel’s strangeness comes from O’Neill’s uncanny ability to normalize the weird. Following the motley crew of Pierrot and Rose’s associates, from mobsters and mimes to clowns, chorus girls, whores, nuns, and junkies, The Lonely Hearts Hotel is peopled with tragic figures and sad performers caught up in the gyre of their own escapism as the world around them seeks to forget the First War—and prepare for the Second.

The spectres of the two World Wars haunt the text, but this is by no means a novel about the Wars. It is, rather, a tragicomedy of the sacred and profane lives of Pierrot, an orphan-junkie-pianist, and of Rose, his governess-turned-concubine-turned-circus-proprietress wife. It is also the story of the mobster Mac, who finds love against all odds, and whose love affair turns him from an archetypal villain into a sympathetic, if terrifying, killer with a broken heart. The novel is, too, the tale of the lonely hearts of a failed clown, who succeeds as Rose’s accountant; of a whore named Poppy, who goes to jail so that other prostitutes can keep working; and of a lovestruck, cruel nun named Eloise, the unlikely antagonist in the bildungsroman of Pierrot and Rose, and the true villain in the story of their lives. O’Neill constructs in The Lonely Hearts Hotel a universe of sympathetic misfits, fusing the neo-Victorian scope of an Angela Carter novel with the post-Modernist absurdism of John Irving and Thomas Pynchon, and sweeping her readers into a rollicking adventure that is by turns breathtaking, tragic, erotic, and hilarious.

In one of the novel’s more absurd scenes, Rose confronts the mobster McMahon about the whereabouts of Pierrot. She is informed that “he’s alive and fucking well, hanging upside down at the dock. He’s happy there” (326). Sure enough, Rose finds Pierrot “hanging upside down, tied by his ankle to a hook from the deck of a steamer. The clowns came running with a long ladder, which they had used for a traditional house-on-fire scene” (327). “How are you?” Rose asks Pierrot, to which he replies, “I don’t know. You can get used to anything” (Ibid). This strange exchange, which ends with Pierrot’s declaration that “You can get used to anything,” speaks to one of the central themes of the novel: the resilience of misfits, and the necessary gift for adaptation that Pierrot, Rose, and their comrades must cultivate in a life of limited certainties.

The novel bridges personal and collective uncertainties. It focalizes Pierrot and Rose’s personal tragedies—life in the orphanage, the use and abuse of drugs, the string of dingy motels and circus tents that the couple occupy—against the collective tragedies of the 1920s and 1930s: the Great War, the Great Depression, and the impending Second World War.

The misfit protagonists of The Lonely Hearts Hotel are masters of endurance. Fusing faery-tale and Dickensian realism, the glamour of the cabaret and the Snowflake Icicle Extravaganza with the grit of the heroin den, the dole line, and the Front line, O’Neill’s absurd protagonists become “collector[s] of beautiful moments” (150), infusing into their damaged worlds instances of beauty and wonder. Against this backdrop of personal and collective tragedy, O’Neill creates a universe of hope; of beauty in the unlikeliest of places; and of humour, wonder, and a belief that “[t]heir life was to be a marvellous circus, on and off the stage” (457). The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a truly wonderful book, tragic, heartwarming, and hilarious by turns, and, like O’Neill’s other novels, a fantastic, satisfying, enjoyable, and haunting read.

A. Irene Mangoutas is a PhD Candidate at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She is currently writing her dissertation on memory, nostalgia, and fantasy in neo-Victorian British literature and film, with a particular interest in English country house narratives and the Great War. Irene is on the editorial board of The Lamp, the graduate creative writing journal at Queen’s University. She holds a BA (‘09) and MA (‘10) from the University of Toronto. 

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