By Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown, and Company April 2014
From the library
San Francisco in 1876 is a difficult place to live. The heat is unbearable and smallpox is rampant. Blanche Beunon is a burlesque dancer from France who lives with her boyfriend and his best friend. She has no friends of her own though, until she meets the fascinating and enigmatic Jenny Bonnet. Jenny makes her living catching frogs and selling them to local restaurants but she is notorious for wearing men's clothing. Jenny and Blanche become close, but their growing friendship is cut short when Jenny is murdered before Blanche's eyes. She sets out to discover who murdered Jenny. Her search will uncover Jenny's true past and determine Blanche's future.
Frog Music is based on a true case and Jenny and Blanche were both real people. While Donoghue's suppositions about what really happened are fascinating, the true wonder is the way she brings a specific time and place to vivid life. You can practically smell the Chinese food cooking in the area of town where Blanche lives and hear the French songs that she loves to sing. This book covers so much of the darkness of humanity - the way Jenny is persecuted for the way she dresses, the impossibility of escaping a life of prostitution, the terrible living conditions of people crammed into tiny apartments, and the horrendous but all-too-real practice of 'baby farms' where parents paid for their children to be barely kept alive in huge institutions. This book is not easy to read, but it is always engaging.
Blanche is smart and savvy - she knows which 'clients' to keep on her good side and has even managed to save enough money to buy the building in which she lives. The rent from the other tenants in addition to her work as a dancer/prostitute keep her living comfortably. But Blanche is naive when it comes to people. Her boyfriend Arthur and his best friend Ernst live off of the money that she brings home. It isn't until Jenny starts asking questions about her life that Blanche learns that she cannot always trust the people around her. This makes Blanche a frustrating character at times but she is, after all, only 25 years old. How many of us are content to call our lives good until our eyes are opened to something more?
Emma Donoghue is a powerful writer. Her novel Room catapulted her to literary stardom with its tale of a boy and his mother held captive. In Frog Music, Donoghue can stretch her narrative horizons and introduce a dazzling and dangerous city and characters who can charm you while their dangerous secrets loom over them. This book can be hard to stomach as it chronicles the basest of human instincts to survive at any cost and to conquer the weak, but it makes the reader uncomfortable only because Donoghue reveals them with an unflinching eye for character and story.
A note: Some other reviewers were taken aback at the explicit nature of some scenes in this book. Blanche does work as a dancer and prostitute and the author describes both her professional and personal sex life.