Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Wow, what an absolutely captivating romp through the 1876 San Francisco smallpox epidemic and heat wave with a dance hall girl/prostitute, as she searches for her stolen baby and the murderer of her cross-dressing, professional frog-catcher friend... a murderer whom she suspects is her own longtime lover, a "fancy man" and former acrobatic star! (Um, yeah, that's more or less the set-up in a nutshell.) I thoroughly enjoyed Emma Donoghue's latest offering, and I rate it about a 4.5 out of 5 stars... But I think it deserves the round-up to 5 just on the strength of the unique plot, setting, and characters.
This is Donoghue's first novel since her international bestseller "Room," which was, of course, a complete sensation in literary and popular reading circles in 2010. Of course, whatever novel Donoghue published next would come up against some "not as great as 'Room'" backlash. To her credit, Donoghue doesn't try to write another pulled-from-the-news contemporary story, but instead returns to her roots in historical fiction. I had previously read Donoghue's well-written, though rather dark, historical novel "Slammerkin," and this novel is quite recognizably from the same author ... But "Frog Music" is a far more interesting and satisfying read than "Slammerkin," in my opinion. "Frog Music," released on April 1st of this year, has been met with mixed reviews so far. I know the reaction from my book club friends has been a little iffy so far as well, although I'm looking forward to hearing everyone's thoughts.
Here's why I found "Frog Music" such an entertaining read. I loved the sheer uniqueness of the characters. Jenny Bonnet and Blanche Beunon--two women who struggled to make their way in the world and live unshackled by the conventions that bound most women of their time. The characters of Jenny and Blanche are based on real people, something I didn't realize until I read the afterward at the end of the novel. But Donoghue took the basic known facts of their lives, pulled from sensationalized news accounts of the time, and created characters that, for me, jumped off the page. Both Blanche and Jenny are maddeningly, frustratingly flawed, to be sure ... but utterly fascinating. They are some of the most memorable characters I have come across in a novel for quite some time.
The setting, as well, was a high point for me. The San Francisco of 1876 felt like a character in and of itself--a city with a reputation for eccentricity and loose morals; a port teeming with immigrants, teetering on the brink of disaster with racial violence and a looming public health crisis. It's a perfect place to set a story about characters who must forge their own unique path.
I admired Donoghue's structuring of the novel. She weaves the tale between two story lines--the days leading up to the murder of Jenny, and a period about a month earlier when Blanche and Jenny meet. She does this skillfully. I never felt confused, and in fact, Donoghue uses this structure to slowly reveal the changes in Blanche and her deepening understanding of Jenny and, eventually, of herself. The pacing is well-done; the novel builds nicely to a climax. In "Frog Music," as in "Room," Donoghue shows herself to be a master storyteller.
Certainly, I could make a few criticisms. In some ways, I think it might have been better for the story if Donoghue had not followed the plot of the real events so closely. The plot dragged a bit at the time of the inquest. Jenny was the most interesting character, I felt; it would have been fascinating if she could have lived ... Of course, I suppose, that would have been a different novel entirely.
In any case, I found this to be a well-written, highly satisfying and enjoyable read. I look forward to reading whatever the versatile and inventive Emma Donoghue publishes next.