Thursday, August 14, 2014

Death of a Frog-Catching Cross-Dresser

Frog Music Emma Donoghue
Emma Donoghue's Frog Music has gotten a lot of attention because, well, it's Emma Donoghue.  Frog Music is her first novel since Room, but has more in common with her previous novels than with that one.  It's a historical fiction book that is based on a true story - or rather, a small newspaper blurb about a murder that remains unsolved which Donoghue spun into a story.  I love the way she does this.  She did the same thing in her novels Slammerkin and Life Mask, both of which I really enjoyed.

The plot as described by the publisher is:

Summer of 1876: San Francisco is in the fierce grip of a record-breaking heat wave and a smallpox epidemic. Through the window of a railroad saloon, a young woman named Jenny Bonnet is shot dead. 

The survivor, her friend Blanche Beunon, is a French burlesque dancer. Over the next three days, she will risk everything to bring Jenny's murderer to justice--if he doesn't track her down first. The story Blanche struggles to piece together is one of free-love bohemians, desperate paupers, and arrogant millionaires; of jealous men, icy women, and damaged children. It's the secret life of Jenny herself, a notorious character who breaks the law every morning by getting dressed: a charmer as slippery as the frogs she hunts.

In thrilling, cinematic style, FROG MUSIC digs up a long-forgotten, never-solved crime. Full of songs that migrated across the world, Emma Donoghue's lyrical tale of love and bloodshed among lowlifes captures the pulse of a boomtown like no other. 

The two main characters in this book, Jenny Bonnet and Blanche Beunon, come blazingly to life.  Jenny has a carefree and seemingly happy-go-lucky approach to the world but asks all sorts of questions that set Blanche on edge.  And Blanche starts the book thinking that she is doing pretty well in life with a boyfriend who loves her and a job that pays well, but ends the book as a determined and resourceful woman who depends on no one but herself.

I appreciated the way Donoghue wrote these two characters.  She plays a lot with the roles of women and feminism and female friendships in all her historical novels, and this one was no exception.  She gives us insight into how a woman can be a mother who loves her child enough to risk everything for him, but still feel unsure about whether she likes her baby because he cries all the time and seems not to appreciate all the work she does for him.  She shows how friendship can develop between two women so quickly so that they understand so much about one another, even when they know hardly anything about each other's backgrounds.  The friendship that develops between Jenny and Blanche is wonderful to see unfold.

This is one of those books in which the setting, a sultry San Francisco in the decade after the Civil War, is a main character that almost steals the show from the people who populate it.  I enjoyed reading about all the saloons and dance halls and neighborhoods; I'm sure people who live in San Francisco would enjoy it even more.

I read Frog Music as an audiobook, so the songs and the accents came to life for me in a way that I am sure would not have happened had I read the novel in the more traditional format.  I appreciated this because other things made the audiobook pretty difficult.  The story unfolds in different time periods and even from within those two time periods, there are flashbacks, and the narrative jumps all over the place.  In the audiobook, especially at first, it was hard for me to always make those jumps and I got confused.  This got easier as the story went on, but I can't help feeling like I missed some key things at the beginning that were probably important.

I think I appreciated this book more for its themes and messages than for the story itself.  While I loved the central characters, I didn't much care for the mystery or about the unsavory people in Blanche's life.  As these were pretty key components to the story, I am unsure of whether I can say that I really loved the book.  All I can say is that the characters were so vividly drawn, and the setting came to life so well, that I suppose for me the plot was the frosting, not the cake.  


  1. Donoghue is such a good writer that I'm happy to try anything she comes out with, even if he plot isn't quite up there with the characterisation. I enjoyed your review of this one :)

    1. I feel much the same way, Sam! I don't mind the plot if it's well-written.

  2. I should try this one as I enjoyed Room

  3. I'm excited to read this one - now I think I should get it on audio!


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