Dancing Through the Depression
The Lonely Hearts Hotel
By Heather O’Neill
Riverhead Books, 2017
On March 8th, the Baileys Women’s Prize announced an intriguing longlist. Now in its 22nd year, the annual award celebrates the best novels by women written in English and published in the UK. It’s a prize that’s known for its variety (after all, one of its aims is to recognize the diversity of fiction written by women), and this year’s longlist is no exception. Fans of science fiction, thrillers, historical fiction, or classic retellings will find something to their taste amidst more traditional literary fiction selections. The longlisted authors hail from the UK, the U.S., South Africa, Ireland, Canada, and Nigeria, and several debut authors find their spines brushing up against titles from giants like Margaret Atwood and Annie Proulx. But of the 16 titles, the one that immediately caught my eye was The Lonely Hearts Hotel by the Canadian author Heather O’Neill.
A women’s prize expands the public’s perception of noteworthy writing, and The Lonely Hearts Hotel is exactly the kind of book that gains most from this expansion. Its title and cover don’t scream “serious literature,” and O’Neill fuels her prose with a frothy charm that’s almost self-deprecatingly simple, letting its depth sneak up on you. This isn’t the kind of book you imagine Readers of Literature analyzing with furrowed brows and calculated gravity. It’s the kind of book that both bookworms and casual readers would discuss with friends over coffee, appreciating its humor and quotability. O’Neill doesn’t attempt sophistication; instead, she embraces roughness to tell this story of orphans, prostitutes, clowns, and gangsters, combining the brutality of Depression-era Montreal with the whimsy of a fairy tale.
Pierrot and Rose are talented children growing up in the same orphanage. He – blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and buoyant – can play the piano in a way that makes people forget their sadness. She – dark-haired, dark-eyed, and clever – can dance and mime in a way that makes people remember their childhood dreams. From a young age, they are sent off to the homes of Montreal’s elite to perform and make money for the orphanage. For them, these performances are an opportunity to become ever more in sync with one another; they feed off their shared energy, admire each other’s minds, and ambitiously sketch out their future careers. In their world of hunger, sexual exploitation, and neglect, daydreaming becomes an act of rebellion.
As young teenagers, their stories diverge: Pierrot becomes the companion of a rich elderly man, and Rose becomes the governess of two wealthy children. O’Neill’s talent for settings comes to the forefront in this section as she strings spare, strange details together. When Rose accepts her post with the McMahon family, she’s given a tour of their mansion:
There was a room that was especially for drinking tea after one o’clock. There were blue flowers on the walls, and there was a grandfather clock. Its loud ticking sounded like a suicidal man cocking his rifle over and over again.
Pierrot and Rose move beyond the orphanage, but both the characters and the narrator maintain their childish eccentricity and openness. Like Lemony Snicket’s narrator in A Series of Unfortunate Events, the narrator of The Lonely Hearts Hotel occasionally pauses to state the obvious, explaining to the reader that a jealous person is feeling jealous, or that a fearful person is acting out of fear. Although jarring at first, this blunt use of basic emotions gains more and more power as the story progresses. Yes, we can see that the character is “sad” – but isn’t it compelling to be reminded of it with that pure, juvenile word? Likewise, the characters express their love for Montreal in the simplest terms possible, like when Rose imagines creating a touring performance company:
[The group would] make people wonder what it was like to live on the snowy island. Where there was nothing but crying pregnant girls. Where you could have sex with a girl wearing nothing but a fur hat and socks. Where there were churches and horses and too many babies and too much snow. Where everyone fell in love only once.
And this commitment to basic descriptions extends to candid portrayals of sex. There are few Hollywood moments, where we jump directly from kisses to sunlight streaming in the window the next morning. Instead, O’Neill offers scenes like the following, where a prostitute named Poppy attempts to seduce Pierrot:
Pierrot stared at Poppy’s provocative outfit, which didn’t excite him in the least. There were so many holes in her stockings that they looked like oil paint on water. And her blue bustier was missing buttons up the front. She winked at him saucily, like a doll with an eye that didn’t close properly. He sort of felt he should act more like a man. He asked her to bend down and show him her ass.
Sex in The Lonely Hearts Hotel is mechanical, dirty, and revolves around power dynamics. Why dress it up? The narrator and the characters know that most adults use words to disguise the truth, not to express it.
But the book’s simple, childlike perspective still allows for endless linguistic creativity. Again and again, Pierrot and Rose make sense of their world through sharp and surprising comparisons. At one point, the sky becomes “darker and darker shades of blue, as if it were applying more shades of eye shadow, until it was sufficiently mysterious to go out on a date;” in another moment, a swan walks out of a pond “looking like a bride holding up her dress as she stepped out of a car.” It’s a gamble to rely so heavily on metaphors; even just a few wrong notes can sour a reader’s trust. O’Neill’s weak notes are few and far between, and her gamble pays off.
But as the language remains playful, the story plucks Pierrot and Rose out of their privileged new homes and drops them into Montreal’s seedy underground. Their paths back to poverty, and eventually to each other, are a study in how society views love, dignity, and ability through the prism of gender. After the death of his companion, Pierrot assumes many identities: movie theater pianist, lover, art and jewelry thief, heroin addict. No matter what role he’s playing, he finds society’s expectations of him bemusing. Whenever a woman asks him for help on the street, he hopes she doesn’t want help lifting something heavy, or fighting another man, because he’s just “[not] good at that sort of thing.” When the Depression hits, the narrator claims it’s harder on men, who are “taught to have so much pride, to go out into the world and make something of themselves….Since women were taught that they were worthless, they took poverty and hardship less personally.”
To maintain their dignity, Pierrot and the other poor men of Montreal wait in endless job lines every day, knowing full well that no jobs are available but wanting to prove to anyone watching that they’re still men. But Pierrot dreams of more fulfilling roles than the performance of masculinity. He wants to make children laugh and forget their empty stomachs. He wants his piano pieces to fill people to the brim, bringing their buried joy to the surface. He wants to be “affectionate and loving” in a world that only lets women show tenderness. And he wants to find Rose and treasure her – but he feels no compulsion to own her. When he sees her acting in a silent sex film, he feels no jealousy, only admiration for her talent and beauty. Why, he thinks, should she “belong” to him, or to anybody else?
But amidst the frenzied loss of the Great Depression, ownership becomes an obsession for some. McMahon, the father of Rose’s pupils, has a beautiful wife that he hides away in his mansion while he runs Montreal’s most successful nightclubs and drug rings. But it’s still not enough; he needs the very best girlfriend available, because she’s someone he can “update and change,” reflecting “the type of girl [he] could get on that day, at that hour.” Rose – vivacious, bizarre, and lovely – is everything he needs to prove himself the city’s most enviable man.
As McMahon’s mistress, and then as a pornographic actress, Rose navigates her own tangled beliefs about female sexuality and power. Pierrot is a winning character, but it’s in Rose’s sections that O’Neill is at her best. At first, Rose is the one who pursues McMahon, reasoning, “She liked the idea of being ruined. She was curious to see what would happen to her if no man would marry her. It seemed like the most likely way to have an adventure.” And she revels in her role as his public mistress, accompanying him to nightclubs and captivating everybody with her vibrancy. But as time wears on and her personal ambition is rekindled, she realizes that she’s just like all the women around her: capable but confined.
Everywhere she looks, she sees women’s talent going to waste. In a darkly funny moment, she appreciates the gifts of McMahon’s wife:
Rose thought McMahon’s wife was a psychic genius. She was able to tell what he had been up to on any given night. You could tell by his expression that she was right. She had no business being a housewife, really. She probably had a mind built for being the world’s leading criminal investigator. She could be out in the world tracking down society’s most heinous criminals or cracking enemy codes. Instead she was stuck in the house, focusing all her intellectual acumen and perspicuity on piecing together exactly what her husband had been up to that evening.
When a female singer becomes a hit at McMahon’s club, her success story ends like this: “She joined a touring American jazz troupe and ended up making cameos in the biographies of several famous men.” And when Rose begins her porn career, she works with a “genius” named Mimi who “should have been a lecturer at a university. She should have been touring around in a black suit and tie, talking about French history. She was here without her clothes on, though.” All the women around her have abilities that society squanders, allowing them to act only as accessories.
But like Pierrot, Rose dreams about creating performance art that explores love and grief and innocence. She becomes a clown show connoisseur, enthralled by these men who dress up like children, who transform sorrow and indignity into something comical and beautiful. She convinces herself that she’ll find Pierrot in one of these acts, and that when she does find him, they’ll create a life full of imagination and wonder together.
Ultimately, The Lonely Hearts Hotel questions whether men and women can rise above expectations of gender, and whether the barrier between childhood and adulthood can be broken. Maybe these feats can only be accomplished by people like Pierrot and Rose, whose childhoods prepared them to create their own happiness, and who learned from an early age that being themselves was an act of defiance. The world demands perfection, or the appearance of perfection, in all things: beauty, wealth, relationships. But people who make art can embrace the hideous, the odd, the imperfect. These are the qualities that Rose looks for when she scouts theater acts, eventually meeting this brother-sister pair:
The eighteen-year-old boy played the ukulele with such an odd solemnity. The sister sang a letter to a sweetheart who was overseas. She had a squeaky voice, slightly off-key, but confident for no reason. Only an act as awkward as this could dare to convey the tragic events that had occurred overseas, so Rose booked them on the spot.
Tuneless singing shouldn’t break our hearts. Grown men painting their faces and acting like fools shouldn’t lift our spirits. The Lonely Hearts Hotel, with its grim, wacky grace, shouldn’t quite work. But it does.
Jennifer Helinek is a book reviewer living in Russia.