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The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

Reviewed by Dessa Bayrock

The Lonely Hearts Hotel is quintessential Heather O’Neill. It’s wonderful and crazy and saucy and wholesome. It's going to make you feel like you have a broken heart in your whole body. It's going to make you feel like you're filled with sunshine breaking through rainclouds. Many authors struggle to portray the balance of darkness and light that makes up this life; Heather O’Neill just writes the world as it is. The result is whimsical, frank, and as intricate, delicate, and careful as a snowflake. The Lonely Hearts Hotel is equally likely to introduce the reader to a heroin addict, mobsters, and whores as it is to children, clowns, and nuns, and it renders each into stunning, vibrant life without judgement. O’Neill’s Montreal peopled with complex and agonized characters, ranging from jerks to saints – but each and every last one is sympathetic.

Pierrot and Rose are orphans with nothing but a sense of joie de vivre and their refusal to give in to the orphanage’s framework of meek and colourless living. Unfortunately for the nuns trying to raise them, the children are impossible to corral – or even beat – into submission. Rose dances with an imaginary bear; Pierrot plays wild and heartbreaking music on the orphanage’s out-of-tune piano; together they entertain the other orphans, fall into the purest sort of love, and plan to open the Snowflake Icicle Extravaganza – a circus to end all circuses.

Of course, the children grow up and lose track of one another, as Pierrot is adopted and Rose is contracted out as a governess. Each refuses to give up their love of clowning around and their way of seeing the world as bright as a droplet of dew on the petal of a rose, and each remains a sparking firework in the life of those around them – but will they ever find each other again?

Their story – of love lost, love regained, the airy weightlessness of dreams and the thrill and disappointment when they finally come to life – is classically beautiful and heart-wrenching. But the brightest and loveliest thing about The Lonely Hearts Hotel is Heather O’Neill’s style of writing: packed to the brim with similes, metaphors, and tiny anecdotes about the world as we know it. By all rights, the narrative ought to be choked to death by so much imagery. Instead, it blossoms into life like a desert after a rainstorm – like Montreal after the winter snows melt away, and flowers begin to curl up between cracks in the pavement.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel is published by Riverhead Books.

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