Review | The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

With echoes of The Night Circus, a spellbinding story about two gifted orphans in love with each other since they can remember whose childhood talents allow them to rewrite their future.

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.

With her musical language and extravagantly realized world, Heather O’Neill enchants us with a novel so magical there is no escaping its spell.

Between that gorgeous cover, comparisons to The Night Circus, and the Montreal setting, I was positive that The Lonely Hearts Hotel was going to be a 5-star read. Unfortunately, The Lonely Hearts Hotel was more dismal and gritty than I had anticipated, lending itself more towards comparisons to Great Expectations and other Dickensian works – works, themselves, of which I was not a fan. The bleak atmosphere, combined with some truly uncomfortable scenes, made this book very difficult for me to get through.

Heather O’Neill’s writing style was quite pretty, leaning heavily upon flowery metaphors. This, coupled with disjointed childlike sentences, gave The Lonely Hearts Hotel the feeling of a fairy tale, albeit one that is dark and filled with debauchery.

I appreciated how whimsical both Rose and Pierrot were: they concocted elaborate dreams as a way of escaping the harsh realities of their circumstances, and it was both fascinating and heartbreaking to see how their paths diverged as they were afforded different opportunities. I also admired Rose’s strength and ambition; it was refreshing to see a female character who was unapologetic about using whatever means necessary to achieve her goals.

Overall, I’m disappointed that I didn’t enjoy The Lonely Hearts Hotel more. I went in expecting more magic and whimsy (due to comparisons to The Night Circus) and was very surprised when a lot of the book centred around sex and drug abuse. That said, I will certainly pick up more of O’Neill’s works in the future — and will likely give The Lonely Hearts Hotel another try down the road.

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  • I’m so glad I read your review before picking this up! I loved The Night Circus, so I can imagine I would have experienced similar disappointment upon finding that the themes in this were less magical and light. I hope you can enjoy it more, with your reset expectations, if you decide to pick it up again down the road.
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