On the eve of World War I, two illegitimate children are abandoned to a Catholic orphanage in Montreal under similar circumstances. One is a dark haired baby girl with rosy cheeks who is left to die in the snow by her unwed mother. The other is a pale-faced male infant with a sweet smile who was born to a 12-year-old impregnated by her cousin.
The nuns dub these two children Rose and Pierrot. They have no familial relationship to each other, but the two become devoted to each other amidst the life of hardship and abuse at the children’s home. Both stand out from all the other little Marys and Josephs in the care of the nuns because of their flair for performance and high imagination. Rose excels at dancing with an imaginary bear and Pierrot can improvise incredible tunes on a worn-out piano. The two learn to perform music, dance, and acrobatics together with an almost eerie symmetry in the parlors of well-to-do French Canadians in order to make money for the orphanage.
However, the nuns are hard on the two for their nonconformity, and Pierrot especially comes in for sexual abuse from an early age by a young nun who is besotted with him. Eventually, the pair of children is separated when Pierrot is adopted by a wealthy eccentric and Rose goes into domestic service as an exuberant and unorthodox nursemaid to the children of a local crime boss.
Rose and Pierrot spend most of their teenage years in anguish at their separation and each makes bad choices as a young adult. Pierrot is put onto the streets when his mentor dies and he goes from being an itinerant vaudeville piano player to being a street junkie and a fence of stolen goods. Rose catches the eye of her employer and enters a rocky relationship as his mistress-a relationship that makes her the companion of a group of “gangster molls” and crime underlings.
The two childhood companions reunite in a chance encounter on the streets one night and immediately embark on an adult relationship with a fierce intensity. Pierrot leaves his “call girl” lover Poppy and Rose drops McMahon, the brothel owner who had been supporting her. Despite their newfound delirium at rediscovering each other, all does not remain happy among their chosen underworld of addicts, prostitutes, impoverished street performers, and failed clowns.
Rose, who has undiscovered business acumen, initiates a trip to New York for herself and Pierrot with a touring company of show girls. Her real object is to complete a criminal assignment that she has been blackmailed into undertaking. The trip proves the couples undoing and the unraveling of their shared ambition to be famous performers as fate steps in to separate the couple once and for all.
Canadian novelist O’Neill creates an enchanting dark fable set amidst the dire poverty of the Depression era period between the two world wars. Her star-crossed lovers are the universal clowns of an arid landscape described hauntingly in raw language and with mature content.
Lisa Kobrin is a Reference Librarian at the May Memorial Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (336) 229-3588.