The Lonely Hearts Hotel: She Persisted

“I love when you talk about taking over the world.” –Pierrot to Rose, The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

At the center of this tale of‒among other things‒down-on-their-luck orphans, gangbangers from Montreal to New York City, sad clowns, and great love during the greatest of depressions, is nothing less than a feminist manifesto. Protagonists Rose and Pierrot start from unfortunate beginnings, left at an orphanage in Depression-era Montreal, by mothers who didn’t expect them, to nuns who expect nothing from them. But once Pierrot meets his first piano and Rose begins to dance, it’s clear they’re destined for more than anyone could have imagined.

Following Rose and Pierrot on their separate paths from the orphanage to the underbelly of Montreal, The Lonely Hearts Hotel is at first glance a love story for the ages. Pierrot is a brilliant idiot, with the air of an aristocrat and the whimsy of a child. Rose is cunning, ambitious, and curious at a time when women are expected to defer to men in all things. The ways in which these two characters complement each other, and the beauty in the flipped gender norms of their relationship, are nothing short of breathtaking. To top it off: in a context in which men seem to trap women, Pierrot allows Rose her freedom.

And there lies the heart of this so-called manifesto. At every turn, Rose proves that she is as smart and as able as any man she comes up against. At various points in the story, she can be found reading everything she can get her hands on, running a business, coming to the aid of women, or thwarting the plans of gang leaders. Try as they might to put her in her place, she prevails with determination and flare. The words “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” feel very fitting here.

This entwined story of love, pure delight, and the shattered tops of circus tents is lyrical to the ears. Julia Whelan’s narration captures the wonder of Heather O’Neill’s writing and the complementary opposites of Rose’s and Pierrot’s voices. Rose buzzes with energy and an endless stream of ideas; Pierrot is laid back and constantly overwhelmed. The greatest triumph of this book is the magic O’Neill performs with words that in the hands of others would be plain and ordinary. Listening to Whelan’s voice as I’ve walked around New York City‒another wonderful character in the book‒leaves me smiling like a fool.
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