Both of these books were on this year’s Bailey’s Prize for Women longlist, although neither made it to the shortlist (in addition to Hag-Seed). The winner of the Bailey’s Prize will be announced June 7.
Though quite different, these two books had several things in common. Both are historical fiction, both have a main character who loves playing the piano, and both are love stories.
The Lonely Hearts Hotel
I know there are readers who fell in love with the dreamy, lush tone of The Lonely Hearts Hotel. This is a love story, but be warned – it’s a dark one. I found myself caught up in the first part of the story, when Rose and Pierrot are children. However, at some point the sadness and ugliness in this book caught up with me, and it became difficult to like the characters.
Rose and Pierrot are abandoned babies at an orphanage in Montreal in 1910. Pierrot is a dreamer who loves playing the piano and doesn’t have much sense of reality. Which of course given their situation, is mostly a good thing. Rose is stubborn and strong. She doesn’t get along with the other girls, and she is especially hated by some of the nuns because she doesn’t bow to their authority. Girls and boys are not supposed to interact at all in the orphanage, but Rose and Pierrot become friends. Rose is enchanted by Pierrot’s piano playing, and the two of them begin to perform together – which the orphanage decides to encourage because they can use these two charming children to seek new donors.
They are cruelly separated as children, and much of the book is spent in their adult lives, thinking about each other.
I liked the book for its grittiness, and especially for recognizing that this is a man’s world, mostly, and women have to endure a good many things that men don’t. Rose is strong and survives in a world where everyone wants to push her down. Pierrot, who is the more likable of the two, gets into bad situations mostly because he gets swept into things.
One thing that annoyed me about the writing in this book was how Pierrot was constantly depicted as frail, sensitive, and “feminine”. Clearly O’Neill is contrasting the two characters, but the irony of “Rose is the manly one” and “Pierrot is the feminine one” got old after a while, and in the end, kept me from being swept away by this novel.
There was a lot of emphasis on theatrical performance, which is often so detailed it comes at the expense of the characters. You’re led to think that a beautiful performance is going to save everyone, and yet when it’s over the real world is still there.
Author Heather O’Neill is from Montreal, so I’m counting this towards my Reading All Around the World Challenge.
The Gustav Sonata
I’ve read several books by Rose Tremain, and appreciated each one. She’s a talented writer and all three books I’ve read were very different. The Gustav Sonata takes place in a small town in Switzerland soon after World War II. Gustav is raised in near-poverty by his not-so-loving mother, Emilie. His father, he’s told by Emilie, died because of the Jews.
Gustav’s mother tells him he needs to “master himself.” His tutor tells him to be, like Switzerland, a coconut – tough on the outside and hard to break. This pretty much describe Gustav’s life. He becomes friends with a Jewish boy, Anton, who is a gifted piano player. Gustav becomes emotionally attached to Anton, and also to his parents, who provide him the family he’s lacking at home (they can also afford things like vacations and ice-skating, which is what initially helps him to bond with this family). Anton seems to have everything, except he also has a paralyzing fear of performance which may keep him from ever succeeding with his music.
Interestingly, music has been a theme in a lot of books I’ve read recently (these two and also The Leavers) – both the power of it and the artist’s need to create it. Anton can’t perform to large audiences and this means he can’t compete, and yet he also can’t put away his dream of being a classical pianist. Since I don’t know much about music, I’m sure a lot of themes and symbolism went over my head. Like the title, music permeates this book. For example, a sonata (which I had to look up) is a musical composition for one or two instruments in three or four parts with contrasting forms and keys. This novel is told in three parts, and about the relationship between two people.
Much of the story is about Gustav’s parents. Late in the story, Gustav and Anton are adults and we see how their upbringing and their parents have shaped them.
This is a quiet, thoughtful book, compared to The Lonely Hearts Hotel, which leaned towards exaggerated imagery and characters. Gustav is someone (like Deming in The Leavers) who spends his life trying to please those around him, but who struggles to define himself or do what he wants. Heartbreakingly, he says that he spends his life trying to teach his mother to love him.
It’s a book about friendship, love, and family, where Gustav himself mirrors Switzerland’s neutrality and the guilt some of its citizens feel after World War II. Gustav is a deeply sympathetic character and I enjoyed this book throughout.