Title: Frog Music
Author: Emma Donoghue
Genre: Mystery/Historical Fiction
Rating: 4 stars
What’s it about? The fictionalized account of the 1876 murder of Jenny Bonnet, an enigmatic free spirit in San Francisco, who dressed like a man and earned a living catching frogs for restaurants.
The story begins with Jenny’s murder, which takes place in a rented room at a railroad saloon. An unknown assailant shoots through the window, kills Jenny, but misses her companion, Blanche Beunon. Blanche, a burlesque dancer at the House of Mirrors, is certain she knows who is responsible, but will the authorities believe her? The author cleverly frames this original story with music and lyrics of the times.
The majority of Donoghue’s characters come from historical record and comprise San Francisco’s gritty underbelly during a smallpox epidemic and record heatwave. Blanche’s efforts to both save herself and point to those responsible for Jenny’s murder reveal many complicated and unlikable characters who are trying to scrape by in a rough environment and willingly take advantage of each other. Blanche’s lover and his companion are former trapeze artists from a circus in Paris, where Blanche performed on horseback. A back injury has forced him to quit performing and now Blanche is the breadwinner for the trio, earning money from her “leg shows” and private rendezvous.
Blanche thinks nothing of this until she meets Jenny, who has a knack for asking unsettling questions, and forces Blanche to see her life as it is.
How did you hear about it? It is this month’s mystery book club choice.
Closing comments: The author presents a vivid picture of the seedy side of San Francisco during this time period, including its widespread abuse and racial intolerance. Her characters’ attitudes towards other races, including the French, Irish, Chinese, Italians and Prussians, show how prejudice was deep seated during these times. While the story is based on actual events, Donoghue includes themes of love, friendship and motherhood, yet most of her characters don’t come close to holding onto these things. While Blanche’s character is the most developed, Jenny is the most interesting one. She was well-known throughout the city and I was very interested in her back story.
Frog Music is not for the faint of heart, due to many graphic and weirdly violent sex scenes. Many readers will question whether they are necessary to the story. I’m not sure. I think on one hand, they help define the characters and the times, but I also think there were too many “defining moments.”
The mystery is solved in the final pages and an Afterward provides much detail about the author’s research and the musical references. I thought this was one of the best parts of the book.
Contributor: Ginette 😉
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