Synopsis: (as told by the back of the book)
Two babies are abandoned in a Montreal orphanage in the winter of 1914. Before long, their talents emerge, earning them both adoration and hatred. Pierrot is a piano prodigy; scrappy Rose can light up even the dreariest room with her dancing and comedy. While forced to travel around the city performing clown routines to raise funds for their orphanage, the children fall in love with each other. They also make plans for a sensational future together, dreaming of the most provocative circus show the world has ever seen.
When they are separated as teenagers, Rose and Pierrot are devastated. Rose becomes the nanny of two children almost as incorrigible as she is, and Pierrot is taken in by a kindly old man who encourages his talent. But this is the Great Depression, and when their lives crumble individually beneath them, both Rose and Pierrot escape into the city’s underbelly. Dabbling in sex, drugs, and theft in order to get by, neither knows whether the other has survived. But the memories of each other – and of their extraordinary shared ambitions – keep them searching and fuel their determination to succeed. These two are no ordinary criminals, and if they ever hit the New York stage, neither the theater not the alleys will ever look the same.
I woke up last Saturday morning craving a book that would let me escape into another world and spotted The Lonely Hearts Hotel sitting in (one of) my TBR piles. I found this book while browsing in a bookstore – I had never heard of it previously but was drawn in by the cover and completely hooked by the synopsis. But then, as it happens, other reads got in the way (as I’m sure you understand).
When I cracked it open on Saturday, I disappeared into O’Neill’s tale. There’s something comforting about being in my apartment while both of my roommates are sleeping – it’s easier to concentrate but I know I’m not alone. And in that happy state, I slipped into this book and did not emerge until hours later.
This book is an adventure – it provides everything you could ask for: orphans, clowns, and gangsters comprise the main cast of characters. O’Neill creates a thrilling tension between possibility and reality – at any moment, the two star-crossed lovers could reunite, but the Great Depression seems to be constantly getting in their way. While frustrating, this tension is never uncomfortable because there is an understanding that at some point O’Neill will give Rose and Pierrot their reunion. Until then, as a reader, I was along for whatever ride she wanted to send me on.
Content warning: there is a shocking amount of sex in this book. It’s all portrayed quite literarily (this is in no way a romance novel), but it certainly shocked me at first just how frequently sex was mentioned. However, it all serves the plot and furthers the gritty and grimy world that O’Neill has created for us. And the dirtier the world, the more wonderful the art these performers create.
Also, Rose is simply an awesome character. The sexist remarks she faces time and time again seem comical but also hit too close to home. Women in the 30s and 40s were not permitted to be powerful business woman and yet, she figures out a way to become one (nevertheless, she persisted).
This book is bizarre and magical (not featuring actual magic, just magical in the fortuitous way things come about). If you’re looking to read something different and beautiful, I would recommend this. It’s like The Night Circus meets the grown-up version of A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Interested in this book? Buy it here on Amazon or find it at your local bookstore!