“There is no love without fury. There is no beauty without ugliness.”
Pierrot and Rose are tragic, star-crossed lovers, abandoned as infants at the same Montreal orphanage in 1914. Raised in a loveless, colorless world, Rose and Pierrot both shine. O’Neill has described them as “Edward Gorey drawings, where their tragedies are poems”. They are loved by all of the children in the orphanage and destined for one another. Rose is quixotic, balletic, and fearless, always unafraid to be herself and unquenchably curious about the world outside.
“Sister Eloise didn’t like how other girls paid attention to [Rose]. She was adored for being creative and witty, which was not right, in the nun’s estimation – she strongly believed that girls should be admired only for being good. She hated that Rose was trying to better herself intellectually, something that a girl had no business doing.”
As she get older, her enigmatic personality only grows.
“She certainly seemed crazy. But she simultaneously made them think that there was nothing in the world wrong with being a crazy girl. And that maybe the world needed a couple more crazy girls.”
Rose believes herself to be, at heart, a clown. Not a silly, birthday party character, but a clown in the maudlin, theatrical way of Cirque du Soleil. She sees the world through surrealist glasses, her sense of life and morality shaped by some internal force and oblivious to external mores.
“‘I think clowns feel the consequences of things more than other people do,’ said Rose. ‘We clowns are larger than life. We hold a microscope up to things. I think if you want to be a better artist, you have to be a better person. How else would you be able to express innocence – which is what every clown is after?'”
Pierrot, on the other hand, is a drifter, a musician, and a bit of a cad. A naturally gifted pianist, Pierrot fumbles through life, ad libbing and vamping and, often, following the tides. He has little agency, it seems. To those he meets as a young adult, he is clearly a no-account, prone to excess and laziness.
“The girls who worked as servants at the house or in the neighborhood knew that Pierrot was a fool. They knew that if they hooked up with him, they would be miserable and looking after their children on their own and living off charity for the rest of their lives….Pierrot didn’t impress them. They didn’t think he had the sophisticated language of an intellectual. They thought he had the mellifluous tongue of a hustler.”
But Rose is devoted to him, and Pierrot’s one constant is his love for Rose. Since they were young children, they have been inextricably bound to one another. They are loyal in their hearts and constant in the love they hold for one another, even when separated by geography and other love interests for years on end.
“Perhaps it might be best to let her go. But thinking and obsessing about her allowed him to block out any other memory of the orphanage. It was as though she were the only thing that had ever happened in his childhood. The thought of her climbed and twisted around each of this thoughts like a rosebush.”
“The Lonely Hearts Hotel” is an odyssey; it rends Rose and Pierrot apart and then painstakingly traces their labyrinthian paths back to one another. It is deeply dark and in some ways unrelentingly cynical, though the light of true love always flickers around the corner. It is full of gorgeously biting social commentary, particularly about the roles and rigors of women. To the nuns running the orphanage and, likely, to the neighborhoods at large, it is clear who is at fault for all of these abandoned children.
“These girls had thrown their whole lives away just to have five lovely minutes on a back staircase. Now, with strangers living in their bellies, they had been sent into hiding by their parents, while the young fathers went about their business, riding bicycles and whistling in the bathtub. That’s what this building had been established for. Out of a great kindness for these miserable wenches.”
To the gangsters and toughs, women are an accessory, a commodity that indicates your worth.
“You were contractually, legally bound to wives. They often changed their personality and physical appearance after having children. You never quite knew who you were marrying when you got married. Sometimes your wife turned out to be a dud, and there wasn’t really anything you could do about it. She might have looked from the outside like somebody attractive and easygoing but then became ugly. But a girlfriend was a different matter because she was someone you could update and change. She reflected the type of girl you could get on that day, at that hour. Everyone always knew that mistresses were only interested in your wealth and status, so they were your price tag, so to speak. They were like flashy cars, or incredibly expensive suits.”
And to the society as a whole, women are clearly ‘helpmeets’, not heroines.
“Everyone kept trying to make it clear to Rose that nobody really cared about what a girl had to say. She wasn’t supposed to have radical and clever ideas. She was just supposed to try to vaguely follow what men were on about. They were supposed to bounce ideas off her as if they were playing racquetball. It was a more or less pleasant way of speaking to one’s self. It was important to be a little bit stupid as a woman. It was important not to feel proud of yourself.”
O’Neill has Rose charging through all of these stereotypes, shattering all expectations and forging her own path.
What makes “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” most remarkable, however, is its hyperbolic, almost garish, use of similes. Sometimes there are whole paragraphs of similes strung delicately together, each a gem attractive in its own right and stunning when carefully curated with its companions. If you were averse to figurative language and were wont to excise all of this work’s similes, you would likely cut the book by half. But you would also lose its soul. The figurative language isn’t decorative; it isn’t ancillary. It IS this book. Heather O’Neill engages all of the readers’ senses through some of the most ingenious and original turns of simile I’ve ever encountered. She is the Queen of the Simile and “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” is a treasure trove. I will leave you with just a small sampling of that brilliance.
O’Neill’s Simile Garden
- “Colors began appearing everywhere on what had previously been a white page. The blossoms were like underwear blown off the laundry lines. The orchids hung over the cast-iron gates like girls in just their petticoats yelling at the postman for a letter. And they continued to tour into the fall, when all the leaves were the colorful candy wrappers, leftover from the very sweet days of summer.”
- “All the bruises blooming like violets. All the bruises like storm clouds. The little beads of sweat like raindrops on her nose. All her bruises spreading out like the tip of a pen touching a wet cloth.”
- “The mop in the bucket made the sound of a pig rooting for truffles.”
- “The soft sound of the rain on the rooftop sounded like young girls sneaking off in stockings to elope.”
- “He kept knocking his head against the wall as though it were a boiled egg whose shell he wanted to crack open.”
- “[The letter] lay at the bottom of the basket like butterflies that had died during a sudden frost.”
- “As it grew late into the night, the flowers dropped forward on their stems, like girls who had fallen asleep on a church pew.”
- “The flowers looked all tousled, like children who had been awakened by a fire alarm in the middle of the night.”
- “The pinecones lay on the grass around them, like cigar butts the gods had discarded.”
- “When the tailor was done, there was a pile of measuring tape on the ground as if a mummy had just performed a striptease.”
- “When he lit up the thin cigarette, it made a slight sizzling noise, like the sound of a writer’s manuscript being tossed into the fire.”