Book review – The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill


Heather O’Neil’s The Lonely Hearts Hotel is intriguing, sad, beautiful, and, ultimately, tragic. But, the writing – oh, the writing! I’m absolutely besotted with O’Neill’s writing style. Her style is almost poetic, and her imagination shines through her imagery.

This is a roller coaster of emotion, flinging the reader from despair to hope to fear over and over again. The story centers around Rose, Pierrot, and their doomed but everlasting love. Much of it centers on their lives in the orphanage (where they are both victims of abuse) and their years as young adults. They have the misfortune of being working class during the Depression, which means that they must do everything they can to survive or forget (theft, drugs, prostitution, etc.).

This seems to be putting off a lot of readers, but I like honesty in love stories. Perfect lives are boring and unrealistic. Seeing Rose and Pierrot struggling and succumbing to reality made their love feel more authentic.

O’Neill’s writing is worth the tragedies. I loved every minute I was reading her words. Her writing has a special kind of imagination, where she keeps things within the realm of reality, but seems to find magical ways to describe them. She also has a way of setting a mood that feels both lighthearted and somber, which seems like an impossible combination of contradictions.

One of my favourite things about this story was the occasional, seemingly irrelevant description of something around the scene. For example, after relaying one character’s inner thoughts, in which they express their fears about the progression of work partnerships, O’Neill adds:

On the window ledge was a robin that looked like a fat man who had been shot in the chest by his business partner.

It seems random. Yes, they were walking down the street, but they weren’t discussing birds. However, the character has, in a figurative sense, potentially just found themselves shot by their business partner, and may be on the verge of being cast aside.

And, has anyone else noticed that O’Neill’s work can feel a bit like poetry? For example, in the latter half of the book, when Rose and Pierrot finally reconnected, O’Neill used repetition between paragraphs. I suspect that she was using it to show how perfect the two lovers were for each other, but it almost felt like a poem. For several paragraphs, she flipped back and forth between Rose and Pierrot, and the last sentence of each paragraph was mirrored in the first sentence of the next paragraph.

… He like how all the children in the neighborhood seemed to know her name.

She liked how all the children in the neighborhood seemed to know his name. She liked how he could fry up an egg while smoking a cigarette clenched between his lips. She liked the way he called up to her from the sidewalk. She liked the way he put his arm around her. She liked the way he talked about paintings when they went to the museum. She liked the things he noticed about the world.

He liked the things she noticed about the world …

I adore her writing style and imagery. It makes me want to reread the book just to relish all the descriptions one more time. My favourite line in the whole book is tucked in the middle of a paragraph about a mobster near the end of the book:

He doused his words with alcohol and set them on fire.

I loved this book, but I know that a lot of people didn’t like all the bad things (abuse, drugs, etc.). It seems to be a book that people either love or hate. Still, I recommend giving it a try. It’ll be worthwhile if you can make it through to the end.

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