Emma Donoghue's got range, girl.
Already accomplished at genre-switching, Donoghue follows up her contemporary smash, "Room," with "Frog Music," historical fiction set in late-1800s San Francisco. Based on the real-life unsolved murder of Jenny Bonnet in 1876, Donoghue crafts a most-compelling piece of fiction around very real characters—asking readers to consider what boundaries they are willing to cross for their children, their loved ones and their own lives.
"Frog Music" draws you into the world of Blanche Beunon, a dancer/prostitute who has made her way to the City from her home in France, with her lover, Arthur Deneve. Once stars of a French circus, the pair come to San Fran to make their fortune. And for a while, it works. Blanche saves enough cash to buy a piece of property and serve as landlord, while Arthur tries to run up her salary at the Hall of Mirrors gambling at night, with his friend and former circus partner, Ernest.
It's on a sultry Saturday night that Blanche first meets Jenny, the eventual victim of gunfire through a bedroom window. And it's through Jenny that Blanche sees her life unravel. And it's from Jenny that she finds friendship, and even love. Love she thought she had with Arthur (and Ernest and an Italian mafia dude and the stage where she basically gets herself off in front of a crowd of paying customers.)
Personally, I tangled with my feelings toward Blanche throughout the book. She's certainly not a one-dimensional character. For a prostitute, she seems to have a sudden attack of conscience upon learning where her previously abandoned baby was dwelling. At the same time, when you've lived for long thinking one thing about a person, only to discover he is a complete asshole, it's certain to be difficult to process immediately.
The book comes to a climax (literally and figuratively—there are some very tawdry sex scenes written in a rather genteel but smoking hot way) toward the end, when Jenny and Blanche consummate their friendship, only to have confusing emotions get in the way. Does Blanche find Jenny's killer? Does she regain custody of her son? Answers to these questions propel you through the book, and the afterward, which details the true history behind the Jenny Bonnet murder, will leave you melancholy yet fulfilled.
Historical fiction is one of those genres I often find myself hesitating to pick up, but never regret when I do. An amazing read, and highly recommended. Love that Donoghue includes a French dictionary at the the back of the book for reference, along with her accounting of the actual history of Jenny Bonnet. So sad, so lovely. A thumbs up.
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