Heather O’Neill wormed her way into my brain with Lullabies for Little Criminals. I missed The Lonely Hearts Hotel when it first came out, but when I saw she has a new book coming out soon, I finally learned about this one and jumped on borrowing it from my library. Also set in Montréal, albeit decades prior to Lullabies for Little Criminals, The Lonely Hearts Hotel echoes motifs from O’Neill’s earlier work. Once more we have substance use and addiction, sex work, poverty, domestic violence, etc. But this novel digs deeper into the psyche. My library stuck a “romance” sticker on its spine. I don’t know if that is correct … I don’t know, actually, that I liked this book all that much. Nevertheless, I cannot deny the grip it held me in for the duration that I read it!
Rose and Pierrot grow up together in an orphanage in between the World Wars. Separated in their teens, their lives diverge despite living not that far away from one another. Pierrot finds himself in great luxury, only to be cast down into destitution and drug use. Rose finds herself a servant, only to be suborned further into the role of mistress. As each endures the vicissitudes of life, they dream of finding the other, of putting together a circus like they had fantasized about as children performing together in the homes of wealthy Montréalers. But life is seldom so accommodating.
O’Neill really knows how to sucker punch her readers, let me tell you. This is a bleak book at times. If I were to give content warnings, I’m not even sure where to start, but let me try: pregnancy, miscarriage, abuse, sexual assault, murder, substance use … and a lot more. This is a book where bad things happen to bad people and to good people and to everyone in between. Indeed, I’m not so sure by the end of the book that we can call our protagonists “good people” any more, if ever they were. O’Neill might be trying to show us that people are not good or bad per se but rather that we are products of our environment. There is nothing naturally angelic or diabolical about Rose, or Pierrot for that matter—they act as they need to survive. They seldom ever flourish.
O’Neill’s writing style remains quite narrative, with dialogue almost an afterthought. I see why she attracts nominations for such things as the Giller Prize and Canada Reads. This is exactly the kind of CanLit that CanLit loves to celebrate: seedy and sensational, focused exquisitely on the tragedy of white people, writing steeped in references to a version of Canada that no longer exists (and perhaps never did). I say none of this to mock the book, mind you, but rather to demonstrate that if there were a formula for CanLit award bait, O’Neill has cracked it. This book has serious Fall On Your Knees vibes (and remember, I cite that as one of my faves as well).
Now, all this being said, I’m actually not sure that I enjoyed this book. I’m not sure that I would enjoy Lullabies for Little Criminals if I were to reread it now. I’m a different person from the one I was ten or even six years ago, when I last read that book. Having lived through the trauma of a pandemic, I find my tastes gravitating ever more strongly to more hopeful, happier fiction.
Is there a place for the grimdark historicity of The Lonely Hearts Hotel? Absolutely. Indeed, I want novels like this that depict the grimy past of our cities and culture as much as I want war movies that show war as messy, dirty, and bloody. We need fiction that doesn’t glamourize and romanticize past eras. We need fiction that tells us the truth as much as we need fiction that lets us escape. Of course, one could question whether a book like this is any more truthful and any less of an escape than a happily-ever-after romance—after all, does not O’Neill romanticize a certain type of absurd serendipity that can only ever exist in art?
Some authors, I feel, write because they yearn to live within a story themselves.
That is ultimately where I think I must land on The Lonely Hearts Hotel. As captivating as it is haunting, this book is a melody played on a sad grand piano by a pianist with healed broken hands. It washes over you, crashes against you, asks you to let it in lest it break you down—your choice. I don’t think I enjoyed it, but I respect it, as art and story and something both truthy and escapist. O’Neill remains talented, and she deserves those award nominations and wins.
And yet, I still yearn to leave behind the bleakness in favour of a little more hope.