This is the second book I’ve read by Emma Donoghue – the first was Room, which I enjoyed, and since then I’ve been wanting to try one of her historical fiction novels. This new one, Frog Music, is set in San Francisco in 1876 and is based on a true crime story.
Twenty-four-year-old Blanche Beunon, once a star of the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris, is now a dancer in a San Francisco burlesque club. She lives in the city’s Chinatown with her lover, Arthur Deneve, and his friend – and former partner on the flying trapeze – Ernest Girard. One week in August, two newcomers enter their little circle. One of these is P’tit, Blanche and Arthur’s baby boy, reunited with his parents after a year of separation. Blanche has rarely even thought about her baby during his absence, but now she discovers what being a mother really means.
The other new arrival is a woman called Jenny Bonnet, just released from jail after being arrested for the crime of dressing in men’s clothes. Jenny, who makes her living from catching frogs and selling them to French and Chinese restaurants, is like nobody else Blanche has ever met and makes her think differently about herself and her life. But when Jenny is shot dead, Blanche is convinced that she herself was the intended victim. Can she find the murderer before he kills again and before she loses P’tit again forever?
The real life murder case on which Frog Music is based remains an unsolved crime to this day, but the solution Donoghue provides is believable and consistent with what we have learned about the personalities and motives of the characters involved. The author also includes a detailed Afterword in which she explains which of the characters and events in the story are factual and which are purely fictional.
While there are some very unpleasant, unlikeable people in this novel, I thought the central character, Blanche, was wonderful. Her personality is a mass of contradictions: she’s tough yet vulnerable, intelligent yet naïve, self-absorbed yet sensitive. She’s such a well drawn character and felt completely real. I loved her and desperately wanted her to find some real happiness. Her story is so sad at times – I don’t want to say too much, but the circumstances surrounding the reappearance of P’tit are shocking and heartbreaking; I found that part of the book quite painful to read. As for Jenny, she remains a secretive and mysterious character throughout the novel. It is only towards the end of the book that we (and Blanche) begin to see beneath her protective outer shell and are finally given some glimpses of the real Jenny Bonnet.
The sense of time and place is very strong. I’m not sure I’ve read a book set in 1870s San Francisco before and I found it a vivid, atmospheric setting. The action takes place during both a heat wave and an epidemic of smallpox and both have an impact on Blanche’s story. Another interesting element of the novel is the role of music. Many songs and rhymes are quoted from in the book and information on each of them is given in an appendix. I thought this really added something to the story, helping to provide context and historical background. As Blanche and the other main characters are French and often use French slang, there is a glossary provided at the back of the book too, if you need help in translating any unfamiliar words.
My only criticism of this book is that the way the story is structured could cause confusion. It follows two time periods – one in Blanche’s present, describing Jenny’s murder and its consequences; the other flashing back to the beginning of their friendship a month earlier. Gradually the two storylines converge until they are only a day or two apart and at this point it becomes slightly difficult to follow the chronological sequence of events. Sometimes we are given the date, but not always, so it’s not immediately clear which thread of the story we are reading.
One other thing I should mention is that as Blanche is an exotic dancer there are some quite graphic descriptions of her work. It was maybe a bit excessive, but I could appreciate that it was all part of who Blanche is and it would have been hard to convey the realities of her life without being explicit at times.
Frog Music is not a book that will appeal to everyone (though you could say the same about any book, I suppose) but I thought it was great and having enjoyed this one and Room I’ll be looking for more of Emma Donoghue’s books soon.