I’m beginning this review with a trigger warning for sexual violence. There are occurrences throughout the novel but it opens with an incident that’s shocking and, I feel, it’s impossible to write a review of the book without discussing it.
A young girl’s body is the most dangerous place in the world, as it is the spot where violence is most likely to be enacted.
The book begins with the births of our two protagonists – Pierrot and Rose. Pierrot is born to a girl who is ‘only twelve years old’. Her cousin, a soldier, comes to see her in his uniform and tells her he’ll give her a medical examination to see if she’s fit to be a soldier too.
He’d said that he had to stick his penis inside her in order to test her internal temperature. When he was done, satisfied with her perfect health, he had handed her a little red ribbon that had come off a cake box. Then he pinned it to her jacket as a badge of honour for her grand consummated service to her country.
The girl is sent to the Hôpital de Misericorde to give birth in shame like other young girls.
These girls had thrown their whole lives away just to have five lovely minutes on a back staircase. Now, with strangers living in their bellies, they had been sent into hiding by their parents, while the young fathers went about their business, riding bicycles and whistling in the bathtub.
Pierrot’s father is named – Thomas – but his mother is only ever know by the name the nuns at the hospital give her – Ignorance.
Rose’s mother is eighteen.
[She] hadn’t particularly liked Rose’s father. The boy waited for her on the corner of the street every day. He would always beg her to come into the alley with him and let him have a peek at her breasts. She decided to give in one afternoon. Somehow she thought that if she made love to him, he would go away and leave her alone. Which, actually, proved to be the case.
O’Neill clearly begins the novel this way to shock the reader. I’ve quoted at length from the first few pages because I think it’s important to get a sense of the tone of the book. O’Neill is firmly on the side of women and girls and scornful of the way in which society treats them – not just men but also other women who’ve bought into patriarchal ideas of how women should behave.
She also explores the idea of sexual shame and the impact it can have on people’s behaviour; Pierrot is repeatedly abused at the orphanage by one of the nuns. Also…
At the orphanage, those caught masturbating had their hands whipped with a ruler fifty times. And then they would stand on a chair in the common room wearing red gloves so that everyone would know what they had done. There was a different little boy standing up on the chair every few weeks. And then one day there was the lovely Rose. Nobody could believe it. But perhaps most shocking was the look on her face. She stood with her chin up in the air, a look close to pride on her face.
Pierrot sometimes told people that that was the moment he fell in love with Rose.
At the heart of The Lonely Hearts Hotel is the love story of Pierrot and Rose. Pierrot’s an excellent pianist and acrobat; Rose dances and acts, her most successful performance taking place with an imaginary bear. After they’re seen by the cousin of the prime minister in a play put on by the orphanage, they begin to get regular work performing in the houses of the rich. Just at the point where it looks as though things might begin to work out for them, life intervenes. There are gangsters, prostitution and heroin waiting to derail the pair of them. For some time, they will lose themselves and each other.
O’Neill skewers society, its obsession with sex and money and how both can be derailed by love. There are lots of fantastic lines, I highlighted so many:
While the only females in society who had any real bargaining power were the dopey little virgins with rags, safety-pinned to their underwear, filling up with blood the colour of fallen dead rose petals. The minute they gave themselves up, they really had no agency whatsoever.
“I’ve had it up to here with crazy women. All you have to do is be fucking pleasant and spread your legs, and you are taken care of. You don’t know how easy you have it.”
Everything written by any woman was written by all women, because they all benefitted from it.
If this sounds too depressing (and O’Neill does emphasise the miserable by setting the majority of the action during The Great Depression), there is light in Pierrot’s playing, Rose’s performances and a surprisingly optimistic, although not saccharine, ending.
The Lonely Hearts Hotel probably isn’t for everyone – if the reactions of the Baileys Prize shadow panel are anything to go by it’s definitely marmite – but I absolutely loved it.
Thanks to riverrun for the review copy.