Book #275: Frog Music Review

4-5-Star-Ratings

 

I actually finished this book a few weeks ago, but I’ve been holding off on reviewing it because I wanted to make sure that I had all of my thoughts in order.  Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music made me feel so many feels that I felt emotionally tapped out by the time I’d finished the book.  It’s one of those wonderfully written books that not only makes you think, but leaves you exhausted even as you want more.

Frog Music itself is equally hard to pin down.  It’s set in the late 1800s in San Francisco, which definitely qualifies it as historical fiction.  But it’s also part murder mystery, part coming-of-age tale, and part social commentary.  I pity the fool who had to write Frog Music’s synopsis, but it’s definitely better than what I could manage:

Summer of 1876: San Francisco is in the fierce grip of a record-breaking heat wave and a smallpox epidemic. Through the window of a railroad saloon, a young woman named Jenny Bonnet is shot dead.

The survivor, her friend Blanche Beunon, is a French burlesque dancer. Over the next three days, she will risk everything to bring Jenny’s murderer to justice–if he doesn’t track her down first. The story Blanche struggles to piece together is one of free-love bohemians, desperate paupers, and arrogant millionaires; of jealous men, icy women, and damaged children. It’s the secret life of Jenny herself, a notorious character who breaks the law every morning by getting dressed: a charmer as slippery as the frogs she hunts.

In thrilling, cinematic style, Frog Music digs up a long-forgotten, never-solved crime. Full of songs that migrated across the world, Emma Donoghue’s lyrical tale of love and bloodshed among lowlifes captures the pulse of a boomtown like no other.

The back of the book makes this sound like a historical thriller in the same vein as something like Deanna Raybourne’s Lady Julia series or Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily books.  But that’s not quite right, either.  Although Jenny Bonnet (and her murder) underpin the entire plot of Frog Music, it’s as much a book about friendship, love, motherhood, and gender as it is a whodunnit.

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San Francisco in the late 1800s. If you’ve been there recently, you’ll recognize both the buildings and the streetcars!

That’s why it’s understandable that the book has gotten such mixed reviews.  In comparison to Donoghue’s break-out success in Room, Frog Music might as well have been a critical flop.  I’m sure readers expecting another thriller were both confused and disappointed with this book, which—while it has thrilling moments—is definitely NOT your typical murder-gets-solved genre piece.  Kudos to Donoghue for resisting the urge to write books she knows will sell and instead write the stories that matter to her.  Few writers do this anymore (ahem, Charlaine Harris), so it’s a relief to see such a versatile and capable author embrace her artistic spirit.

1867. Eliza Blasina wearing horse-head headdress, short costume with attached horsetail, rows of round beads or bells around ankles, wrists, neck and upper arm.

1867. Eliza Blasina wearing horse-head headdress, short costume with attached horsetail, rows of round beads or bells around ankles, wrists, neck and upper arm.

There is so much that Frog Music does right that it’s hard to know where to start.  All the characters in the book–from the protagonist Blanche to her pretty useless paramour Arthur–feel like real people.  They’re broken and often unlikeable, but they also feel like actual residents of San Francisco during the period.  I’m constantly griping about stale and two-dimensional characters in contemporary literature (BORING), so imagine my relief when I realized that Frog Music has colorful characters in spades.  Additionally, it’s clear that Donoghue meticulously researched the period itself.  She masterfully blends setting, plot, and characterization together so that San Francisco feels just as real as Jenny and Blanche.  The city becomes a living, breathing thing without you knowing it, and when you finish the book, you miss the 19th century west coast as much as the characters themselves.  In essence, Donoghue treats readers to a master class in how to a) write characters that matter without b) succumbing to the overwhelming need to make them likable.

Frog Music also jumps around in time.  The book opens with Jenny Bonnet’s death, but then zips back to the moment Jenny and Blanche meet.  The book jumps from the present to the past often, but it’s never confusing.  Donoghue leads you through the maze of Frog Music without patronizing you; she keeps the sequence of events clear even as she maintains an air of mystery around Jenny’s murder and Blanche’s fate.  You keep turning pages because you want to know what happens (even though you already know what happens for most of the novel!), and by the end, you’re left with at least a marginally satisfying answer.

Jenny’s murder trial is actually the weakest link in this book.  By the time her hearing rolls around, you’re more interested in Blanche’s fate, her relationship with Arthur, her missing son, and whether the justice system will stick up for Jenny–a reported lesbian.  The trial itself doesn’t seem to matter as much as the issues surrounding the trial, so when the verdict gets handed down, there isn’t as much weight as you’d like.  Additionally, some of the circumstances around Jenny’s murder that lead to the murderer’s capture feel contrived, which is a shame since Donoghue does such a wonderful job with the rest of the book.  But that’s a pretty small nit to pick with an otherwise spectacular book.  I only wish that I could go back and read it again for the first time.

 


 

I loved this book.  I mean, I loved this book!  It has everything I enjoy: 19th century antics, smart observations about womanhood, adventure, thrills, and prostitution.  But it’s an ambitious novel, and it’s not like Room, so I don’t think I can recommend it to everyone.  If any of the above sounds interesting to you, though…do yourself a favor.  Pick up Frog Music and give it a shot.  You might be disappointed, but if you aren’t…you’re in for a real treat.



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