Publication date: April 1, 2014
In 1876 San Francisco was engrossed in the story of Jenny Bonnet, a young woman found murdered in a small town outside the city. She preferred wearing men’s clothes and made her living catching frogs to sell to restaurants. Author Emma Donoghue found her equally compelling and made her murder the subject of her new novel, Frog Music. Donoghue enlivens the story by connecting Bonnet with another, more well-known woman of the time, the famed Blanche Beunon, an exotic dancer from France, whose accommodating nature also made her a charming escort. Unfortunately, like many industrious women of her time, most of Blanche’s earnings go to supporting her “fancy man”, Arthur, who has a fondness for gambling and get-rich-quick schemes.
Blanche and Jenny meet when Jenny runs into her while on her bicycle. Despite their obvious differences, they strike up a tentative friendship. Jenny is a person of many questions but few answers. She shrugs off Blanche’s inquiries about her own past but gets Blanche to reveal that she and Arthur have an infant son, who is being “nursed out, on a farm, for his health.” It is only when Blanche decides she wants her child with her, that things become less than très jolie for the couple. Arthur’s lack of fatherly instincts and interest in getting a job while she stays home with the child lead her to believe she would be better off without him. So, she leaves San Francisco to find Jenny who often visits the outlying towns in hopes of better frog catching (a highly prized delicacy in the restaurants of the time). It is shortly thereafter that Jenny is murdered and Blanche is so certain of who is guilty and why that she makes it her priority to bring that person to justice.
Donoghue is no stranger to historical fiction and, once again, she does a top-notch job conveying the sights and sounds of a booming but still rough San Francisco. The summer of 1876 was particularly difficult as there was both a heat wave and a small pox epidemic swept through the city. This was enough to inflame an already agitated populace against the Chinese immigrants who filled the slummy neighborhoods, even though they were in no way responsible.
Donoghue creates Blanche as a woman with a quick mind and the drive to succeed but beyond that key elements of Blanche’s story did not add up, namely that she ever felt any deep friendship for Jenny or that she suddenly discovered how much her baby meant to her. The same characteristics that make her successful also make her wildly self-absorbed. When she does retrieve the infant from the hovel where he has been kept, she finds anything to do with him to be distasteful. Jenny perplexes her with her ability to exist outside the world of luxury and convenience and the fact that she shared nothing of her past with Blanche is telling. The mystery aspects of Frog Music kept me reading (and ultimately surprised me at the end) but, for as real as the descriptions of San Francisco felt, the characters felt false.