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Frog Music opens with a song—fitting, given this music-filled narrative—and a murder. Jenny Bonnet, frog-catching, cross-dressing, loveable misfit, meets an untimely demise in the first scene; Blanche Beunon, her new friend, is bent over unlacing her gaiter at the time the mysterious shots shatter the window and pierce Jenny’s body.
This is the summer of 1876, San Francisco—a record-breaking heat wave grips the city, a smallpox epidemic rages, cultural clashes and raging stereotypes abound. The guilt-ridden and confused Blanche spends the next three days in a frenzy, attempting to bring Jenny’s murderer to justice and risking her whole life to do so. As Blanche races around the city, desperate for clues, searching for answers, she uncovers innumerable secrets and begins to unfold the riddle of Jenny’s past. As such, Frog Music is a mystery novel on many levels—every character is riddled with secrets and Blanche is intent on uncovering them all, which she does, revealing layer after complex layer. The things she discovers are as unexpected as the ultimate identity of Jenny’s murderer.
Frog Music feels remarkably contemporary—especially the ways in which Jenny’s murder is treated by the media (sensationalist half-truths) and the police force (they may put on a show of caring, but ultimately, seem unlikely to find the killer and bring him to justice). There’s the curious attraction budding between Jenny and Blanche, that thin line which female friendships sometimes cross. There’s Jenny’s renunciation of traditional female garb (she’s done jail time for it) and work—she catches frogs to keep the French and Chinese restaurants in the city supplied with legs. All this said, Donoghue is careful not to imbue contemporary judgments on these characters or this plotline. Blanche is a prostitute and a burlesque dancer, and she makes no apologies for it: she loves sex, she loves the finery her earnings bring, she loves to be wanted. Until Jenny shows up in her life, she doesn’t question supporting her gambling maque (French-specific pimp, for a man living off of, but not organizing, his woman’s earnings) Arthur and his friend Ernest, nor does she question the whereabouts or health of her one-year-old son. She’s blissfully ignorant, a selfish and not-too-likeable young woman. Despite this, and because of Jenny’s entrance in her life, Blanche begins to change—she is transformed by Jenny’s presence, inspired to ask questions and dig deeper in the present situation of her life. This transformation drives the events of Frog Music.
No discussion of this novel would be complete without mentioning music. In the opening scene, when gunshots crack the air, Blanche mistakes them for lightning, superstitiously thinking she’s brought on a storm. And music continues to loom throughout Frog Music. The songs add texture and heart to the narrative—Jenny’s an inveterate songster, picking up music as she cavorts around the city, and this habit in turn becomes Blanche’s. The songs, in some ways, influence the events of the narrative as much as the characters’ actions do—the pulse of the music beating firmly beneath the plot.
This is Donoghue’s first full-length novel since her bestselling Room, and though the subject matter couldn’t be more dissimilar, Donoghue’s trademark language and curiosity about the seedier aspects of humanity are on full display. Though the story sags a little in the middle, this otherwise fast-paced mystery is a captivating exploration of female friendship, music, cultural clashes, San Francisco’s history, childcare, and the sex trade in the United States. Call it a literary crime novel, call it historical fiction, call it lyric and engaging, Frog Music is in a category all its own.
By Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown and Company
Hardcover, 9780316324687, 416 pp.