It’s still a bit early to list my favourite books of the year but I have a pretty strong hunch what will be topping the list. Last night I finished reading Heather O’Neill’s The Lonely Hearts Hotel. It was 11pm and I just sat there looking around the house for someone to talk to about it. Then I remembered that it was my lovely UofT instructor who pushed me to finally read it (it had been sitting in one of my piles for months) so I emailed her. There were probably too many exclamation points for that late at night but I didn’t care. It was the most amazing book.
It tells the story of Rose and Pierrot, brought to an orphanage run by crazy nuns in Montreal in the winter of 1914. Rose had been left in the snow: “the two bright spots on her cheeks had turned from blue to red then took two more weeks to disappear.” I don’t even have to same anything more, but I will. The two children are performers. Rose dances with an imaginary bear and Pierrot plays the piano, they perform for children before being sent out by the nuns to entertain the rich. They makes everyone happy as if by magic. Nothing I say can do this story justice. The narrative moves through their lives, they finally escape the orphanage and are separated. What they go through before being reunited is heartbreaking, but beautiful which is a major theme – beautiful sadness. O’Neill is the master of metaphor. I don’t remember the last book I’ve read where I’ve needed to underline so many sentences. Her images slow everything right down, silencing the story in the way snow blocks out sound, the only thing you hear is the pressing down of boots proving forward motion. It’s no surprise snow is a major image.
It reads like a fairy tale, magical without being fantasy. The greatest surprise is that it is one of the most feminist stories I’ve read this year. Nothing stands in Rose’s way, not men and not sex (of which there is a lot). She loves the conversation of women: “Rose adored the brilliant repartee of the girls. It was like the train itself, traversing in all domains – trivial and profound subjects, both at once.” She doesn’t bring them down on her way to freedom, she values and pulls them up alongside her.
As the years go on, Rose bursts through walls and ceilings with the ferocity of Eleven from Stranger Things – a weird comparison but one I couldn’t keep out of my head. I also was reminded of “La La Land” many times because of the haunting tune Pierrot writes for Rose that plays throughout the novel.
O’Neill is brilliant, bursting through her own walls and ceilings with this latest book. I’m not surprised, Lullabies for Little Criminals blew me away when I read it years ago. I’ve missed her short stories and second novel in between and will definitely be catching up. This novel is more powerful than Wonder Woman walking into No Man’s Land but is beautifully quieted by snow and sad clowns and heroin addiction and gangsters and prostitution and love. It is about endurance and the beauty of sadness.