Heather O’Neill’s Lonely Hearts Hotel offers magical vision of a time and a place

Heather O'Neill has new novel called The Lonely Hearts Hotel. Photo: Julia C. Vona

The Lonely Hearts Hotel
Heather O’Neill (HarperCollins)

In Town: Heather O’Neill will attend the spring edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival on April 28 at 8:30 p.m. She appears with Mary Walsh. For tickets and more information, please see writerfestival.org. On May 13 she will be at the Wakefield Writers Festival. For more information about this event, please see writersfete.com.

Once upon a time there was a young orphan named Rose and another named Joseph. They lived in a Montreal orphanage that was full of abuse and darkness. Rose had come to the orphanage after being left wrapped in swaddling clothes in a snow bank. She was almost frozen solid when she was carried into the building, but she survived. Rose was an amazing survivor.

Joseph came to the orphanage with a unique talent. He was a piano prodigy. But he was preyed upon by a perverse nun. Rose and Joseph met and loved each other. They were also talented and that led them to create an act that would entertain people. But as they grew up, Joseph was adopted out and the two were separated and spent many years looking for each other.

When they finally did reconnect, Rose was the mistress of a mobster and Joseph, a.k.a. Pierrot, was a burglar and a heroin addict. If that sounds like a fairy tale, it should. That’s part of the idea. It is the fabulous story told in The Lonely Hearts Hotel by the talented Montrealer Heather O’Neill.

The original idea for this book occurred to O’Neill when she was 22, she said in an interview.

“I tried to write it and when I was finished I had about five pages. I stapled it, put on a construction paper cover and circulated it to my friends. But I didn’t have anything to create a book at that point.”

She says the spark of the idea had come from her father who had come of age in Montreal in the 1930s and ’40s.

“He had always told me when I was growing up these wonderful bedtime stories about thieves and gangsters. and bank robbers he had known (back in the day).”

O’Neill’s father had done some second-storey jobs for these hoods during the depression, she says. He was the youngest of nine children living in a home on Colonial Street. His father was dead and his mother was a janitor at Baron Byng High School.

Her father, who has passed away, went to Grade Three and then dropped out, but, she says, he was a storyteller in his own right.

“He was a janitor, but he had a perspective of himself as a very important person. Whenever I had forms to fill out and he had to sign them and put in what he did for a living he would never write janitor. He’d make something up. I have a copy of my birth registry and he had put down that he was a professor of philosophy.”

“When he would tell me stories, it just seemed so colourful and I saw him though such rose-coloured glasses.”

So O’Neill already had a vision of the mid-20th century underworld in Montreal.

“I was thinking about it a few years ago and said to myself, ‘it would be so interesting to go back and use that source material’.”

O’Neill has a special affinity for Montreal. “It is definitely a city that has a romantic idea about itself. If you have grown up here, that romanticism becomes part of your understanding of how to look at the world.

“I’ve always been madly in love with the Plateau. Everything is there. One time my daughter and I were thinking maybe of moving. We asked a friend of my daughter’s ‘Would you ever move off the Plateau’. She said ‘Oh no, the Plateau is the love of my life’.

“Oh yeah, the Plateau is the love of my life,” O’Neill said.

So Montreal is a character of sorts in the book. And she had those characters from that initial youthful attempt at a novel. “I thought I’d see what I could do with them.”

What she did is create a magical story. It is dark. People are abused sexually and physically. People are criminals. They deal drugs. They prostitute themselves. They are degraded and downtrodden. And yet, they rise up time and time again.

The book is also full of symbolism that adds to the sense of fable.

“I had this idea that it could be like a commedia dell’arte which Ihave always been very interested in.”

Commedia is full of masked archetypes and clowns and so is Lonely Hearts Hotel. Joseph’s nickname Pierrot certainly is a commedia icon, the sad clown searching for his true love.

“When that clicked the whole book took shape for me. It’s like a theatrical farce in a way. Also I had seen a map of the old red light district in Montreal that had been made in the 1940s. It showed all these little back doors where you could get out if the place was being raided.”

Those doors reminded her of the stage and so she started writing the novel using theatrical conventions. Pierrot would walk in one room and Rose would walk out another door.

And there are many Biblical references. Joseph/Pierrot can read dreams and he also wears a “coat” of many colours much as the Old Testament Joseph did. And, like Adam in the Garden of Eden, Joseph/Pierrot steals a jewel-encrusted glass apple as he leaves his adopted home.

If you want to push the references further, the rose is a symbol of the Virgin Mary.

O’Neill says she “was aware of the biblical idea. Sometimes thing happen incidentally and that opens up so much.

“I actually looked up the archives of an orphanage in Montreal to see what names the boys were given. Every single boy had been named Joseph. It was too good to be true.”

O’Neill is clearly a purposeful researcher.

“It expands what your imagination can do. You’ll read something and it may not make any sense right away but six months later all of a sudden it comes together in your subconscious. … The more you know the richer the vein.”

There is little doubt though that Rose is the central figure of this story.

“The other characters are more like archetypes. Rose’s nature is to destroy archetypes, each one that comes by. She is a cross between a gangster moll and Simone Beauvoir.

“She just rises up like the Queen of the Underworld. She is a fascinating character for me. I wanted Pierrot to be in the book equally but she is so powerful and dominant, capable of so much creativity and so much destruction. She is the most dangerous person the book.”

A reader doesn’t expect this Rose to emerge when she is first introduced. But, O’Neill says, “she  just kind of developed.

“I came up with her when I was 22 but it took me 20 years of reading and developing my own theories about the world and anger and pissed-off-ness to come up with Rose. There’s no way I could conceive of such a complex person at 22.” She had to live to get to her.

“I had this idea of her physically … and I could see her actions. When I got into her, I was surprised by what was in her head.

“You see so many images of women from that time, from chorus girls to silent film stars and you have no idea what is in their heads.

Rose pursues a mobster to become his mistress. She organizes a theatrical revue a la Zeigfeld’s Follies and also becomes a criminal mastermind. And she survives.

She is also the reverse of some many heroines in so many 19th century novels lie Jane Eyre where the master pursues the servant girl. Rose is the pursuer.

The novel is full of sex, drugs and crime but it is also a conscious feminist statement.

“It’s about Rose coming into her own by being constantly aware of the constraints that are out on her as a woman. It’s remarkable and a touch absurd that she is even able to do that. It also a bit of my position (as the writer) to allow her to know. It’s almost as if Rose has read all the important texts of second wave feminism.

“Women of the time would have known these things but wouldn’t have had the language for them. They wouldn’t know other women were feeling the same and that there was something wrong with it. The magical thing is Rose is able to articulate it.”

O’Neill says she never thinks about writing a sequel.

” It’s takes a long time to figure out the voice and lyricism of the book and everything about it. Once it’s done I just want to let it go. I almost feel like I could never get it back.”

O’Neill says she always has two books on go at the same time. It has become her writing style.

“I would previously reach an impasse and get frustrated. So now when I get to that point I switch back and forth like a farmer rotating crops.”

Given the quality of The Lonely Hearts Hotel, looks like it works.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.