Frog MusicFrog Music by Emma Donoghue
My rating: 4/5 cats
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From the Author Q & A:

One journalist kindly alerted me to the fact that there was a hoax in my Wikipedia entry, a claim that I was writing about ‘the murder of a cross-dressing frog-catcher!’ – and was abashed when I told him it was true.

and it is indeed a story about that, although it sounds a bit silly described that way, but it’s not at all a silly book. it is an entirely serious book based on an unsolved murder case in san francisco in 1876, during the smallpox epidemic and a terrible heat wave. which makes it a perfect book to have read during this polar vortex situation. emma donoghue is one of those authors who does all the right things when it comes to her historical fiction. there is an author’s note in which she describes all the research she did for this book, and the difficulties she faced with much of the primary materials having been destroyed in the fire and earthquake of 1906, and a later fire in 1921, plus an extensive backmatter section for all the songs used in the book and their provenance and meaning, as well as a glossary with all the french terms, which was particularly helpful when it came to the slang.

the story is about two women thrown into each other’s lives when one of them, jenny, runs into the other one, blanche, on her bicycle, which would have been one like this:

despite their completely different backgrounds and personalities, they form a sort of friendship, and blanche ends up bearing witness to jenny’s murder, and takes it upon herself to see justice done.

blanche is a french woman brought to this country, pregnant, with her maque arthur and his ami intime ernest, all of whom have come from a background of circus and performance. the men now live off of the money she makes dancing in a burlesque theater and her… other services to men, while they swan about town in their fancy clothes, living their bohemian lifestyle. she has left her infant son in the care of others “farmed out,” in the french custom, but once she learns of the conditions in which he is being kept, she takes him back home with her, even though she has no idea how to care for him, or even how to love him.

jenny is an irrepressible sort – living life on her own terms, frequently thrown into jail for daring to wear trousers in public. she is one charmed by the world – socializing with every person she encounters, picking up scraps of stories and songs wherever she goes like a musical magpie. she seems to glide through life – all bluster and bravado, and her relationship with blanche is conducted entirely on her terms, whenever she happens to show up, grinning and full of energy. she does indeed earn her crust by hunting frogs, where the trousers come in handy, and she sells these frogs to the french and chinese immigrants as the delicacies they are.

as in Visitation Street, which is not so much a mystery novel as a celebration of location and character, this book is also a celebration of location and character but also time period, although “celebration” may not be quite the right word when it comes to the time period. it is certainly an evocation of the period, though, with its spreading disease and racial unrest and sweltering heat and gender inequality etc..

blanche is a tough character to applaud from the comfort of our modern sensibilities. she has cast off her inconvenient child without a second thought in order to pursue her life in the sex trade, giving both her money and her body to these two men who degrade her and then go out on the town on her dime to have sex with other women, and subtextually, each other. her feelings towards jenny are both feelings of envy for her freedom and carefree attitude, but also disdain for the same. and yet the friendship flourishes in a way that is genuine and meaningful despite blanche’s realization after jenny’s death that she knew very little about this woman to whom she had become so attached. her treatment of her son, after she removes him from the squalor of the “nursery,” is not a typical mother’s unconditional love – she is almost revolted by him, although at her very core, she has a reluctant mother’s love that needs him near, even as she is unfit for the task of caring for him.

the middle gets a little draggy, as blanche flounders around without direction, but even then, the description of the city is so vividly rendered in these parts, it doesn’t ruin the overall novel, it just makes the pacing a little uneven.

again, this novel is based on an unsolved murder. donoghue offers what she calls an “educated hunch,” and from a narrative standpoint, her conclusions are justified and satisfying, but we will never know the truth of what happened, or the truth of jenny herself. even within the confines of this novel’s explanation, she remains a cipher, as blanche’s inquiries only lead to more questions about how much of jenny’s persona was real and how much a protective contrivance.

it’s a strong return to historical fiction for donoghue, and while it doesn’t have the shock value “ripped from the headlines” appeal of room, it will most likely be a bestseller with book club potential.

read my reviews on goodreads

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