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The Lonely Hearts Hotel

The Lonely Hearts Hotel

by Heather O'Neill
The Lonely Hearts Hotel

The Lonely Hearts Hotel

by Heather O'Neill





"So filled with vivid descriptions and complex characters that the reader's experience is virtually cinematic. . . Utterly compelling." – The Washington Post

A spellbinding story about two gifted orphans –  in love with each other since they can remember – whose childhood talents allow them to rewrite their future.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a love story with the power of legend. An unparalleled tale of charismatic pianos, invisible dance partners, radicalized chorus girls, drug-addicted musicians, brooding clowns, and an underworld whose economy hinges on the price of a kiss. In a landscape like this, it takes great creative gifts to thwart one’s origins. It might also take true love.

Two babies are abandoned in a Montreal orphanage in the winter of 1914. Before long, their talents emerge: Pierrot is a piano prodigy; Rose lights up even the dreariest room with her dancing and comedy. As they travel around the city performing clown routines, the children fall in love with each other and dream up a plan for the most extraordinary and seductive circus show the world has ever seen. 

Separated as teenagers, sent off to work as servants during the Great Depression, both descend into the city’s underworld, dabbling in sex, drugs and theft in order to survive. But when Rose and Pierrot finally reunite beneath the snowflakes – after years of searching and desperate poverty – the possibilities of their childhood dreams are renewed, and they’ll go to extreme lengths to make them come true. Soon, Rose, Pierrot and their troupe of clowns and chorus girls have hit New York, commanding the stage as well as the alleys, and neither the theater nor the underworld will ever look the same.

With her musical language and extravagantly realized world, Heather O’Neill enchants us with a novel so magical there is no escaping its spell.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780735213739
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/07/2017
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Heather O’Neill is a novelist, poet, short-story writer, screenwriter, and essayist. Lullabies for Little Criminals, her debut novel, was published in 2006 to international critical acclaim and shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Born and raised in Montreal, O’Neill lives there today with her daughter.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2017 Heather O'Neill







On that day in 1914, a young girl banged on the door of the Hôpital de la Miséricorde on Dorchester Boulevard. She was pudgy and had round apple cheeks and blond ringlets. She was only twelve years old.

Her older cousin, Thomas, had gone overseas to France to fight. She had been crazy about him since she was a tiny thing. He was wild and did handstands and took her to see bands in the park on Sundays. He was brave and always told her that he would like to be a soldier someday. He had come over to her home one afternoon the previous winter and had said that he would give her a medical exam to see if she was fit for active duty, the way that boys had to do. She had really wanted to know whether she could have been a soldier too if she were a boy. He’d said he had to stick his penis inside her to test her internal temperature. When he was done, satisfied with her perfect health, he had handed her a little red rib- bon that had come off a cake box. Then he pinned it to her jacket as a badge of honor for the consummation of her grand service to her country. When the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, Thomas prayed for months that Canada would declare war to get away from his pregnant cousin.

Her parents sent her to the Hôpital de la Miséricorde. Every day there were young pregnant girls lining up outside the hôpital, with their big bellies that they could no longer hide from their families. They had been thrown out of their houses. Some had had time to pack their suitcases first. Others had just been pulled by their hair and tossed out the door. The girls showed up with handprints from their fathers on their faces, bruises they tried to hide beneath their pretty blond curls or straight dark hair. They looked like porcelain dolls that had fallen out of favor with their children.

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. That’s what this building had been established for. Out of a great kind- ness for these miserable wenches.

The nuns gave the girls aliases when they came in through the big doors of the Hôpital de la Miséricorde. They said that the names were for the girls’ own protection, but they obviously had the added role of humiliating the girls and reminding them of their new scorned and sinful status. There were girls named Chastity and Salome and Dismal.

The apple-cheeked girl was christened Ignorance by the nuns. She became known as Iggy. She had no regard for the fact that she had a potbelly with the most precious package in the world inside it.  She wrestled a cat one day. Another day she leaped from one bed to the other as though they were ice floes. She did cartwheels down the hall. The nuns tried their very best to stop her. They had occasion to wonder whether she could be so remarkably naive or if she was trying to have a miscarriage, thinking somewhat irrationally, that she would get out of there early.

When her baby boy was born blue, it didn’t surprise anyone. He looked like a stillborn baby. The doctor checked the pulse.  There was not a sound coming from the boy’s heart. The doctor put his hand in front of the mouth to check for breath, but there was nothing.

They left the baby on the table, its arms at its sides. Its bow legs fell open. The priest didn’t know what happened to these babies in limbo. He waved his rosary over him—did his funeral rites. He turned away from him. He would take the baby away in his large handbag that he kept especially for such occasions. He would have him buried behind the church in a bread box. You didn’t have to have fancy coffins for this kind of death.

Then strangely and surreally, the boy’s penis began to rise straight up. And then the baby coughed out a cry, color began to appear in his skin and his limbs twitched. The erection had brought him back from the dead. The priest wasn’t sure whether he was witnessing a miracle. Was this the work of God, or was it the work of the devil?

When the nun from the Hôpital de la Miséricorde brought Iggy’s baby to the orphanage to spend the rest of his childhood, she told the nuns there to watch out for him. His mother had been trouble, and even though he was nothing but a baby, they were sure there was something not quite right about the boy. A black cat was at the nun’s feet and followed them in. All the male babies at the orphanage were named Joseph. It was thus also an imperative to come up with nicknames for them. The nuns at the orphanage called this baby Pierrot because he was so pale and he always had a rather stupid grin on his face.
















Rose was born to an eighteen-year-old girl who didn’t know she was pregnant until she was six months along. Rose’s mother hadn’t particularly liked Rose’s father. The boy waited for her on the corner of her 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.

When she realized she was pregnant, the girl hid it under baggy clothes the whole time. She gave birth to a tiny baby girl at home in the bathtub. It had purple lids over its eyes. It looked like it might be thinking about a poem.  The girl’s sisters all stared at the little baby in shock, not knowing what to do. They forgot to put their hands over the baby’s mouth and it let out a cry that summoned everyone in the house.

With tears streaming out of two black eyes that she’d gotten from her father, the girl wrapped the baby up in a little blanket. She put on her black coat and boots. She was supposed to go straight to the church. Babies were abandoned on the church steps all the time. The baby’s fists opened and closed like a pensive sea anemone. But before the girl left, she got on her hands and knees and secretly begged her mother for fifty dollars. Her mother, with a mixture of disgust and compassion, handed her daughter the bills. The girl whispered “Thank you” and hurried out the door.

She passed the church and walked another mile and knocked on a door at the end of a lane. There was a woman who lived there who would take your baby off you for fifty dollars. For the fee, the woman promised, the baby would not be put in an orphanage.

A woman with gray hair the color of gunpowder and wearing a coat opened the door for Rose’s mother. In the kitchen, she said she would make sure that the girl was given to a rich family in Westmount. She would be dressed in beautiful white outfits with elaborate little collars, which would make her look like a f lower. She would have a governess and an Irish wolf hound. She would be read to all the time from great fat books. For a small fee. For a small fee. For a small fee she could secure a home and good fortune for her daughter.

What a foolish imagination Rose’s mother had to have had to buy what this woman was selling. It was no good to have an imagination if you were a girl and living in Montreal at the beginning of the twentieth century. Intelligence was what she needed. But she never listened to anyone.

A man, taking a shortcut home from the factory, found Rose wrapped in her blanket in the snow beneath a tree in Mount Royal Park. She was frozen and had two little round spots like blue roses on her cheeks. The man put his ear up to the girl’s face and felt that her cheeks were as cold as stones, but he heard a tiny, tiny exhale. He tucked her deep into the folds of his coat and ran with her to the hospital. At the hospital, they put her in a bucket of warm water. When her eyes flittered open, it was a miracle of sorts.

The police went to the park and found other babies in the snow, each having turned into a stone angel.  The terrible merchant’s identity was uncovered and she was arrested. As she was being dragged into court, all the people threw snowballs with rocks embedded in them at her. The woman was sentenced to be hanged. Although everyone was indignant and outraged about the fate of Rose, nobody came forward to adopt her. All anyone could afford was indignation.

When the policemen brought the baby to the orphanage, they said, “Watch out for this one. Nothing good was ever meant to happen to her.” All the girls at the orphanage were named Marie, and so was this baby girl. But her nickname, which she would always be known by, was Rose, because the two bright spots on her cheeks had turned from blue to red, then took two more weeks to disappear.

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