If you were to go to sleep and dream of life in early 20th Century Montreal, Heather O’Neill’s The Lonely Hearts Hotel is what you might dream. The Giller-shortlisted author’s new novel has all the absurd, frightening, fantastical qualities of a midnight reverie — complete with depressed clowns, dancing bears, lunatic nuns and smitten mobsters — and with a similar power to haunt ... When their much-anticipated reunion takes place, it does nothing to disrupt the bittersweet mood of the book. Great joy and immense sadness follow as their story unfolds, and the two set about staging the circus they’d envisioned as children. It would be hard to overstate here just how the good the writing is in The Lonely Hearts Hotel. For it is stunningly, stunningly good ... O’Neill, always an original and enchanting storyteller, is at the height of her powers. The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a feat of imagination, accomplished through the tiny, marvellous details she scatters across the page.
To read Heather O’Neill’s dazzling new novel, The Lonely Hearts Hotel, is to enter an enchanting and poetic world that is also amusing, troubling and often lascivious. O’Neill’s lively style is so filled with vivid descriptions and complex characters that the reader’s experience is virtually cinematic ... Dangers emerge, but in the hands of this brilliant author, even the ugliest events are depicted with the most musical cadences, soaring arias and symphonic resolutions. Filled with inspired twists and turns, the tale is utterly compelling, creating a world where desperation and love coexist.
The Lonely Hearts Hotel is not surrealist or fantasy, but it does exist on a very edge of realism, unapologetically full of coincidences, near misses, and high drama that might often be considered 'too much' in a literary novel ... O’Neill pushes these coincidences past their novelty to the point that the pair’s eventual reunion feels as if it should be the novel’s end, but in fact the plot gets progressively wilder from there ... The greatest strength of O’Neill’s work is her wholly unique narrative voice, which is at once cool and panoramic, yet shockingly intimate and wisely philosophical. The novel brims with shimmering one-liners about gender, poverty, violence, sex, that stand out all the more jarringly in a novel that usually exerts a light, whimsical touch ... The Lonely Hearts Hotel is overstuffed with plot, and at times seems to go on too long. Such epic storytelling may ultimately be less than wholly compatible with the distanced, often explanatory point of view that holds the reader at arm’s length while paradoxically at times 'telling' too much. Overall, however, The Lonely Hearts Hotel is that rare find: a novel you have never before read anything quite like. O’Neill, a genius at metaphor, and who tackles graphic and delicate topics with rare tenderness and even charm, has created a sweeping story with elements of historical fiction, romance, crime and noir, yet writes in a style that authoritatively claims all terrain in her reach as her own.
There is surely a sweet spot where you place just enough obstacles in the path of your protagonists, and O’Neill comes close to missing it. For almost 200 pages, Rose and Pierrot are separated, yearning for each other. There is some wonderful writing along the way, but the innumerable near misses and thwarted meetings pile up to the point of feeling gratuitous. Still, we root for these two, and even as I grew impatient, I admired the novel’s big-heartedness, its defiant affirmation of the whole seedy, sad, beautiful burlesque that is the life of these characters ... This novel is neither gritty realism nor noir, not Dickens nor commedia dell’arte nor dystopian fairytale, but a little bit of all of them.
The jaunty narrative tone conveys an atmosphere of airy loveliness that lends disturbing events an aura of unreality. A critique of the novel might contend that it keeps us swirling in the clouds of pretty language, rather than planting us down firmly into the characters’ difficult experiences ... Representing the power of other arts in writing is a tricky matter — can you convince the reader who has purchased, say, a $27 hardcover, that, for these few chapters, she has front-row seats at a Broadway show? O’Neill pulls this off, in part, because the nature of the theatrical spectacle Rose and Pierrot and company have created speaks to the mesmerizing effects of the novel itself ... The mournful ending of The Lonely Hearts Hotel is all the more wrenching for the delicate narrative touch throughout the novel, which has stirred up hope for a happily-ever-after finale for Pierrot and Rose.