I don’t think I’m the only person who read the description of this novel expecting something different than it was: the publisher’s blurb in fact draws a comparison to The Night Circus, which I did not feel whatsoever, not even in the fact that they both include circus-style performers. Despite the false comparison, this is not to say that The Lonely Hearts Hotel is entirely a bad book because it didn’t meet my expectations, but it certainly wasn’t what I wanted at this time. This is a book that pulls no punches from page 1, and continues to land blows throughout the novel unrelentingly (TW for: physical and sexual abuse on children, women, and sex workers, not to mention miscarriages, dogfights, and addiction also coming to the forefront).
Of course, knowing that a large portion of this book takes place during The Great Depression should make me aware that it’s not all going to be sunshine and roses, but it truly felt like misery porn by the end, with a few insightful nuggets sprinkled in along the way to keep you wondering if perhaps there was going to be a bigger point to it all.
The Lonely Hearts Hotel begins with a heavy first blow: in the 1910s, a teenager is raped by her cousin, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy that is delivered as an unbreathing baby, only to resurrect itself through a baby erection (no, I’m not joking). This child, who is come to be known as Pierrot, is then sent to a Montreal orphanage run by nuns who belittle and abuse these children, as the nuns believe the children to be the beasts born of wayward mothers. Pierrot finds a fast friendship and budding feelings of love with a fellow orphan named Rose, particularly due to the fact that both of them have a knack for performing. After becoming separated when they each leave the orphanage under different circumstances, the two have to find new ways to live and survive across the years, always knowing that they will find their way back to one another one day, to finally put their childhood dreams of running their own magical show together.
One of the strongest currents that I appreciated flowing throughout this novel surrounds Rose, and her place in history as a woman. She is a complicated character with a strong agency, and her situations often examine how women were viewed both historically and in our present day; have things really changed all that much? What choices do women need to make in order to survive or get ahead in any way?
Related to the theme of gender and how society treats women, this novel also involves a huge element of the sexual which I was not expecting: how sexuality can be a force of violence, a tool to wield power, a form of connection, and even a marker of one’s worth in a society that deems women to be sex objects. But the way that the sex was incorporated into the novel felt heavy-handed at times, or was included in ways that suddenly took me out of the moment of the novel; any time a character feels arousal, you will be sure to know about it! This at times works with what is being discussed, and ties in with the continuing theme of how much sex can influence a person’s life. But at other times it feels like crass lines are being thrown in just for the sake of it, under the guise of being sex-positive. And I do acknowledge that children are curious about sex and may start feeling desire from young ages, but I do not enjoy reading explicit lines coming from child characters!
The novel also makes sure to acknowledge issues such as PTSD –most notably in terms of the sexual abuse suffered at the orphanage– and the conditions of sex workers in a way that approaches thoughtful, but never quite reaches beyond a simple awareness that says, “these are people who are suffering and have their whole lives affected by their situations; how sad.”
Similarly, there is also something about the way that this novel approaches the concept of art and performance in a way that feels like it wants to say something… but what? There is rhapsodizing about the role of performers and artists that gave off the air of saying something big and profound, but was really saying a whole lot of nothing. And I am an artist myself, so you would think I would understand what they were getting at! Although whatever it was the author was trying to say, it did remind me a the line from Fosse/Verdon that completely knocked me out, where Fosse says:
“We take what hurts and we turn it into a big gag, and we’re singing, and we’re dancing, and the audience, they’re yukking it up, they’re laughing so hard they don’t realize that all they’re laughing at is a person in agony, a person who’s peeled off his own skin.”
Now I could write a whole essay on that.
The Lonely Hearts Hotel also happens to be the third novel I’ve read so far this year that has some plotline involving a charismatic –if somewhat odd–, young woman who becomes involved with a more-powerful older man, only for their relationship –and the man’s business– to inevitably colour the rest of the woman’s life (often in a negative way, despite whatever lessons she learned during the course of their time together). I’m not saying that’s a bad plotline to have, it’s just a coincidental little pattern that has come up in my reading this year, and it is starting to make me so very tired.
And tired is what I was by the end of this novel: whenever a moment of happiness occurred, I was waiting for the next shoe to violently drop, to remind me that happiness is fleeting in this cruel and unjust world, no matter how strong you are or what choices you make or what opportunities you take hold of. Because there are indeed some moments of happiness throughout this story, but it just isn’t enough to balance out all the pain and misery included. The writing tries so hard to remind us of the beauty that can be found in pain, but the scales simply tip too far to the side of suffering, and I frankly don’t want to think of suffering as something beautiful or endearing.