Release date: February 7, 2017
My rating: 2 out of 5
The Short Of It:
Like, whoa. Talk about a deceptive cover and blurb.
The Long Of It:
So you see the sparkly stars and glowing moon on the cover, the fun Art Deco font, the comparison to "The Night Circus," and words like "enchant" and "magical," and you probably think this is going to be a somewhat lighthearted page-turner. Let me just clear that up right now: this book is mostly depressing as fuck, with just enough charm thrown in here and there to keep you hanging on.
The story started off with such potential! Two quirky children, a boy and a girl, bond in a miserable WWI-era Montreal orphanage. There's something whimsical, almost eerie, about both of them. The boy, Pierrot, has a special connection to pianos and cats; the girl, Rose, has a clever head and feet made for dancing. They both have a magnetic charisma and a knack for performing, and they delight and charm everyone they meet (excepting the strict nuns who run the orphanage). They dream up a brilliant revue show, the Snowflake Icicle Extravaganza, writing up plans to enact as soon as they escape the dreary orphanage. But fate intervenes and Rose and Pierrot must go their separate ways. Over a decade later, the Snowflake Icicle Extravaganza comes to fruition and it's fabulous, innovative and moving -- a joy to read about!
Everything in between? That's where the "depressing as fuck" comes in. There's sex, drugs, rape, prostitutes, addiction, the Great Depression, pornography, unwanted pregnancies, obsession, more drugs and more sex. A disturbing, strange sexual thing happens at the beginning, when Pierrot and Rose are still at the orphanage, but I went along with it. The entire middle chunk of the book, though, was thoroughly lacking in magic and enchantment and thoroughly overdoing it in the sex, drugs and debauchery department. Thanks, but I don't need to hear about every single time a "cock" explodes into a "cunt." (And these weren't erotic sex scenes, either -- the author just felt like she had to let us know every time the characters got it on.) I can understand how all the sex, drugs, poverty and generally shitty times were essential to the plot, but I think the middle section could've been condensed down to 50 pages instead of 200.
I also had mixed feelings about the writing. On the one hand it could be lyrical and filled with the loveliest of metaphors, and on the other it was sometimes choppy and peppered with odd word choices incongruous with the flow of the story and the historical time period.
One thing I did appreciate about the novel was a strong female main character -- a maverick, really. While Rose had plenty of flaws, she knew her own mind, she knew what she wanted out of life and she figured out how to make it happen by whatever means necessary. The author had a lot to say about women's place in the world historically, and while circumstances are quite obviously a million times better for women now that they were a hundred years ago when the book is set, some things still resonated as true. When I read this quote -- "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 color of fallen dead rose petals. The minute the gave themselves up, they really had no agency whatsoever." -- all I could think about was Donald Trump grabbing pussies. Here we are in the 21st century and women are still sometimes seen as nothing more sex objects.
While "The Lonely Hearts Hotel" is most certainly crass, vulgar and dark, it does indeed have some magical, charming, wondrous elements. I just wish there were way more of those and fewer of the former -- though perhaps I wouldn't feel so strongly that way if the book had been marketed differently. When you go in expecting a fantastical adventure and get heroin and prostitutes, it's hard to get your bearings. (P.S. Despite what the publisher's blurb says, I didn't find this book to be anything like "The Night Circus.")
*I received a free advance copy from the Penguin First To Read program in exchange for an honest review.