Montreal, love, and loss explored in Heather O'Neill's 'The Lonely Hearts Hotel'
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TORONTO — Listening to her father recount colourful tales of his Depression-era childhood provided an unexpected source of intrigue and inspiration for Heather O'Neill.
"He was born in the '20s, and he used to always tell me stories about being a little kid during the Depression and all of the gangsters he had met," recalled the acclaimed author and two-time Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist.
"For me, as a kid, it just seemed so wonderful. The way I pictured it was these magical thieves breaking into banks, and there was something so romantic about it."
O'Neill was motivated to delve deeper into researching the historical period, as well as the streets and architecture in her hometown of Montreal during that time.
The city serves as the central backdrop in O'Neill's new novel "The Lonely Hearts Hotel" (HarperCollins) a sweeping, decades-spanning saga of love and loss between two orphans.
Readers may be inclined to pull out a map or fire up their search engines to follow along with the text. O'Neill outlines rich, descriptive details of intersections and locales specific to her beloved hometown throughout the novel.
"All the buildings kind of have personalities," said O'Neill, citing a list of notable neighbourhoods from the affluent Westmount suburb to the downtown Plateau area she describes as "the love of her life."
"It's definitely a character for me and shapes the esthetic of my books," she said of Montreal. "I always find with Montreal the true facts are always so much more magical than anything you could imagine. It just expands your imaginative possibilities, and it gives you just more to build on."
"The Lonely Hearts Hotel" opens in the winter of 1914 at a Montreal orphanage and follows the trajectory of two children: plucky, spirited, comical, Rose, and the reserved, sweet, piano prodigy Pierrot.
Rose and Pierrot manage to not have their spirits dimmed by the abuse which runs rampant in their orphanage. The pair are enlisted to perform in the city for members of Montreal's high society. Along the way, they form a powerful bond that evolves and blossoms from friendship into love.
When they become separated as teenagers, the duo must contend with outside forces looking to impede their paths to true independence — and back to one another.
For Rose, it's the wealthy Mr. McMahon, whose children she is enlisted to help care for; for Pierrot, it's the lecherous grip of Sister Eloise, a nun at the orphanage.
"(Mr. McMahon and Sister Eloise) approach (Rose and Pierrot) by declaring their love for their respective characters; but actually, they're out to destroy them," said O'Neill of the antagonists. "They're attracted to their independence, but they have this desire to clip their wings which is really tragic. ...
"(Rose and Pierrot) are so magnetic, and they're trying to be together; but everybody kind of falls in love with them and is trying to keep them for themselves."
O'Neill said she liked the idea of Rose and Pierrot having no knowledge of their parentage or anything related to their pasts, allowing them to "make up their narrative from scratch." What's more, these two children abandoned at birth ultimately find their sense of refuge in the other's company.
"Their search for one another is also their search for their innocence to kind of reclaim who they were before they descended into the underworld," said O'Neill.
"Once they find each other, they can go and recreate this childhood dream, and recreate this life that they wanted to (have) as children."
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