REVIEW: The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O'Neill

SYNOPSIS: The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a love story with the power of legend. An unparalleled tale of charismatic pianos, invisible dance partners, radicalized chorus girls, drug-addicted musicians, brooding clowns, and an underworld whose economy hinges on the price of a kiss. In a landscape like this, it takes great creative gifts to thwart one's origins. It might also take true love.

Two babies are abandoned in a Montreal orphanage in the winter of 1910. Before long, their talents emerge: Pierrot is a piano prodigy; Rose lights up even the dreariest room with her dancing and comedy. As they travel around the city performing clown routines, the children fall in love with each other and dream up a plan for the most extraordinary and seductive circus show the world has ever seen.

Separated as teenagers, sent off to work as servants during the Great Depression, both descend into the city's underworld, dabbling in sex, drugs and theft in order to survive. But when Rose and Pierrot finally reunite beneath the snowflakes after years of searching and desperate poverty the possibilities of their childhood dreams are renewed, and they'll go to extreme lengths to make them come true. Soon, Rose, Pierrot and their troupe of clowns and chorus girls have hit New York, commanding the stage as well as the alleys, and neither the theater nor the underworld will ever look the same.

GENRE: Fiction, Historical, Adult

RATING: ★★★☆☆ / 3.5 stars...a little up and down, but there is some gorgeous writing that probably deserve an even higher rating.

FAVORITE QUOTE(S): Sometimes I include a favorite quite or passage in these reviews. In this case there were several truly memorable ones and I decided to share a few...

"All I want, Pierrot, is for you to be happy. I can't make myself happy. Nobody can really make themselves happy. But they can make other people happy."

"Most of us hide away when we are sad, Rose thought. But performers were sad in public. She liked how honest they all were. They opened up their hearts. They took out every emotion--no matter how small or pathetic or odd--and celebrated it. It was as though each trick they performed was an attempted suicide, proving that you could indeed survive the human experience."

"They stood looking at the portrait of Gertrude Stein together. The subject was so serious and intelligent-looking. Rose had read her poetry and had admired it. It had made her feel better about herself and her sex. Everything written by an woman was written by all women, because they all benefited from it. If one woman was a genius, it was proof that it was possible for the rest of them. They were not frivolous. They were all Gertrude Stein. Rose looked at the portrait of herself as a poet."

REVIEW: Let's start with a warning...this book is not for the faint of heart. If you don't like sensitive subject matter or vulgarity of any kind, then don't add this book to your reading list. There is beauty and pain and slight redemption in these pages but it comes with a heavy dose of depravity and sex...and clowns, there are lots of clowns (some people need that warning). And it all starts on page 1, so at least there are no illusions, you pretty much know what you're getting into right from the beginning.

Okay, it was cover love for me. I mean, it's hard not to fall in love with that gorgeous cover and typography. And when I read the synopsis I knew that I had to read this book. I enjoy dark and gritty books and romances and this had the promise of an edgier and darker The Night Circus. So, I should probably say right away that it isn't The Night Circus, and nor should it be, because that book is a magic all it's own and should remain that way. The Lonely Hearts Hotel is magical in it's own way, though. There is this strange optimism and pluckiness (for lack of a better word) that manages to come through our main characters Rose and Pierrot, even through all of the horribleness that life throws at them from day one. Where it does resemble The Night Circus is in the connection that Rose and Pierrot have. It makes you ache with just how much you want them to be together and whole.

Alright, so I started page one and the immediate reaction is "whoa, okay, we're just diving right into the ugly". The tone of the book is set immediately. It's actually brilliant. Heather O'Neill has such a unique style of writing, incredibly consistent, sharp and poetic. There is such a strange juxtaposition between the beautiful words and the actual action on page. The harsh realities are told in a magical way and it sort of leaves you stunned and blinking because you're confused as to whether or not you're actually enjoying the book. I am glad that I read the book through to the end. The beginning is the hardest because they are still children, and essentially helpless to the brutality. Once the characters are old enough to make their own mistakes as adults, it doesn't feel as rotten...although everything is still being run through the gutters., I think this is the most up and down review I've ever written, but that's how I felt while reading it, so...

The point thus far is that I'm glad I read it through till the end. The first third of the book had me questioning the necessity of certain actions and depravities, but ultimately, the harsh landscape and characters shaped Rose and Pierrot till the very end. The dream they shared and the innocence of that dream that they hold onto throughout all the horrible choices, despite the loss of their own innocence in one form or another, is interesting and beautiful. It's a bit hard to explain without diving into spoilers.

Oh! And I'll devote this last little bit to Rose's pioneering of feminism and paving her own path. Seriously, this girl did what she had to do and she made no apologies for it. She took charge in the only ways she could and she owned it. Whether it can be judged that she took things too far or not far enough, her character growth and just the direction and message that the author gave to Rose was amazing to read. Part "you-go-girl" and part cautionary tale, it was a large thread of the plot that I highly enjoyed.

Ultimately, this is one of the most aptly named books I have ever read. The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a book just dripping with sadness and heartache. It's brutal but looking deeper you also find humor and strength. The writing is, to my, albeit, limited knowledge, incomparable. I haven't read anything else quite like this novel, despite what comparisons have been made, it stands alone. It's sex and drugs and piano playing... and dancing roses. And I am sure that there will be a wide divide in the reviews. Those that love it and those that hate it, but really, aren't those the books that are most worth talking about?

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