WARNING: This review contains spoilers for The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O'Neill, and should not be read unless you have finished the novel. It also makes references to The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.
As a rule, I generally dislike giving spoilers as part of a general review. However, most of my conflicted feelings regarding this book come from the ending, and thus discussing it is unavoidable.
The Lonely Hearts Hotel follows two orphans, Pierrot and Rose, who are abandoned at a Montreal orphanage in 1914 and grow up together under the care of strict, often abusive nuns. Even as children, they develop an irrepressible bond that is only strengthened by their respective talents: Pierrot is a piano prodigy despite a lack of formal education, and Rose is a charming and talented performer. As a pair, they travel around the city performing for the wealthy, a practice the nuns reluctantly allow for the money that it provides. But when Pierrot and Rose are fifteen, the Great Depression hits, and through a combination of the subsequent hardship and some interference from some of the nuns, Pierrot and Rose are sent to separate homes. While they fare well at first, they both eventually crash down into the dark underbelly of the struggling city. Despite their suffering, they never give up on finding each other, and on breathing life into their childhood plans for the world's most spectacular show.
The writing style is what sticks out the most to me at first. It's highly evocative of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, one of my favorite novels of all time. It's whimsical and lyrical and doesn't so much tell us things as it sings them to us and weaves them into our hair. There is a pretty noticeable difference, though, and that's this novel's simultaneously jarring and grim narrative. The Night Circus is not a 100% happy novel, but it is far from dark; it has a dreamlike story and a narrative that feels gentle even when things look bleak. The Lonely Hearts Hotel, on the other hand, feeds us sugar with one spoon and poison with the other. As I mentioned, the writing style is quite whimsical, but in stark contrast, the events it describes are often horribly nightmarish.
I don't feel it's an exaggeration to say that there's a LOT of sexual abuse in this novel. A lot. As a child, Pierrot is sexually abused by Sister Eloise, one of the nuns (oh, don't worry, I'll get to her), which causes a lot of psychological issues for him down the road, especially when it comes to relationships or the lack thereof. The McMahons, a wealthy family that take in fifteen-year-old Rose as a governess, is headed by a drug dealer and mob boss who takes Rose as a mistress; Rose eventually grows miserable with the arrangement but knows that she will be penniless if she leaves. One she does walk out, she ends up working in porn to support herself. During all of this, she ends up miscarrying two children, and pretty graphically at that. Pierrot, meanwhile, winds up on the street and mostly steals to support his heroin habit, and sleeps with countless girls in an attempt to put both Sister Eloise and Rose out of her mind. All of these events are described so matter-of-factly, at times putting it at odds with the atmosphere that the story creates. Mercifully, however, Pierrot and Rose do eventually reunite after a painful series of missed encounters during which the world itself literally seems to conspire against them, and the loving relationship they develop is a much-needed if brief reprieve, although it too is very sexually explicit.
Pierrot and Rose themselves are fantastic characters to follow. They both possess an amazing charisma, and attract everyone they meet to them without even trying. Pierrot's lack of formal education doesn't keep him from being charming and able to fit in anywhere, while Rose inspires the world around her with her wild spirit. She gradually develops a ravenous ambition fueled by a desire to break out of her assigned gender role, and her years of helplessness in the face of impending poverty.
In comparison, none of the other characters shine as brightly. The only nuns that receive any real characterization are the Mother Superior and Sister Eloise. As mentioned, Eloise begins molesting Pierrot when he is eleven, and soon develops an obsession with him that coincides with Rose seemingly being abused more often. When Eloise discovers Pierrot and Rose's budding love, she grows enraged and beats Rose so violently that it makes the mostly aloof Mother Superior realize that Rose's life is in danger, which is partly what motivates her to send Rose off to work as a governess. Soon after, Pierrot is adopted by a wealthy man and is forced to leave without getting to say goodbye to Rose; he sends letters to the orphanage for her, and Eloise disposes of them. Years later, she also lies to him about where Rose has gone when he comes looking for her. Rose rightly assesses her as a "crazy bitch" and promises to Pierrot that she'll kill her one day...which I'll get to.
McMahon, the man who takes in Rose as a governess and then a mistress, develops a similar obsession with Rose in time, and grows more and more abusive as he finds himself unable to break her spirit as he wishes to. When she finally leaves him, he searches relentlessly for her and tries to have her killed; further down the line, when Pierrot and Rose have married, he also sends women to seduce Pierrot away from her. Rose's initial attraction to him is based on self-debasement; as she puts it, "hating herself was part of what made it feel so good."
Most of the other characters are more minor in comparison, but a majority of them share the occasionally inexplicable trait of wanting to keep Pierrot and Rose from reuniting, sometimes to extremes. You can probably guess that a good portion of the novel has the leads separated and focuses on their efforts to make it back to each other. If this book had kept them apart until the end of the novel, it would have been cruel and I probably would have rated it much lower. Pierrot and Rose's reunion takes long enough as it is, with several near-misses and several outside forces taking direct action to prolong it. But come the reunion does, and it feels like a breath of fresh air to see the couple finally get together. They quickly fall into the relationship they were always meant to have, and the small amount of happiness they are allowed to enjoy is a greatly needed relief.
But sadly, perhaps inevitably, it can't last. The first cracks appear when Rose loses her third pregnancy, but the real tension comes from the plans for the Snowflake Icicle Extravaganza, the show that Pierrot and Rose dreamed of in childhood. When they are finally in a position to try and make their dreams a reality, Rose violently seizes hold of the chance, and while Pierrot goes along enthusiastically at first, he begins to balk when he realizes that Rose has become more fixated on the money than on the show itself and sees what Rose is willing to do, up to and including having McMahon murdered. Their split comes when they have an explosive fight about whether to go back to Montreal after their show's run or stay in New York City; Pierrot wants to stay, while Rose wants to go back, and ultimately the two are not able to reconcile. They go their separate ways; Pierrot falls into despair and poverty once again, and ends up dying of a drug overdose. Rose goes back to Montreal, making good on her threat to kill McMahon, and while she becomes wealthy and successful in the entertainment world, she remains heartbroken by her loss, and is devastated to hear of Pierrot's death.
The final chapter contains an ending that I have some really mixed feelings about. Sister Eloise unexpectedly reappears with Pierrot's illegitimate son in tow and offers to leave him with Rose as penance for the way she acted previously. Rose forgives her and immediately agrees to adopt the boy, deciding that her new mission in life will be to make him happy. As Sister Eloise is leaving, Rose tells one of her men to shoot him, and the body is quickly cleaned up before anyone else can notice.
So on the one hand, I love the cleverness of the foreshadowing for that ending; it ties nicely to a conversation Pierrot and Rose have about Pierrot's childhood sexual abuse. Rose's righteous anger on the behalf of Pierrot isn't focused on much, but admittedly it's a bit satisfying to see that Eloise didn't get away with what she did.
On the other hand, after seeing Pierrot and Rose actually manage to get together and successfully achieve their shared dream, to have it be ripped away in the end makes me really sad. Normally I don't mind sad endings if they fit, but this one bothers me on a level I don't quite understand. Perhaps I just got so invested in the characters that I was that much more crestfallen by the crash. Looking back, if you listen closely, you can see hints that things are inevitably going to fail, but you want to hope that it will turn out all right anyway. Really, though, I think that makes the novel even stronger.
All in all, a powerfully charismatic story that builds up a strong fairy tale and a stronger explosion of its own core.