Today is Emma Donoghue’s 46th birthday. She is best known for her novel Room of which a film version was recently released. In honour of her special day, I’m posting my review of her latest novel.
Review of Frog Music
The setting is 1876 San Francisco which is in the midst of a sweltering heat wave and a devastating smallpox epidemic. The protagonist is Blanche Beunon, a circus horse rider in France before immigrating and becoming a burlesque dancer and occasional prostitute. She lives with her lover Arthur, an ex-acrobat who now spends his time gambling with Blanche’s earnings. Living with them is Ernest, Arthur’s former acrobatic partner who joins Arthur in his dissolute lifestyle. By chance, Blanche encounters Jenny Bonnet, a streetwise cross-dressing frog catcher. Jenny forces Blanche to examine her life, especially the care of her son P’tit, but a month after their meeting, Jenny is murdered. Blanche sets out to identify her friend’s killer.
The narrative moves back and forth through time, alternating between Blanche’s attempts to solve the murder and flashbacks to the evolution of her friendship with the free-spirited Jenny.
On the one hand, the book is a whodunit. Several suspects emerge, but it is not just the identity of the murderer that is a mystery. Was Jenny the intended victim or was Blanche actually the target? If the latter is true, Blanche is in danger. And then there’s the fate of P’tit to add to the suspense.
It is Blanche’s journey of self-discovery, however, that adds depth to the novel. Though she is not a conventional heroine, female readers should be able to identify with her. Her lifestyle may be unusual, but she shares a problem common to many women: the demands of motherhood. Becoming a mother was not in Blanche’s plans, so when faced with caring for her son by herself, she alternates between loving him and resenting him. Like many a stay-at-home mom, she craves adult companionship: “But she’s desperate for some lively company. Someone who sees her as something other than a vehicle or a bottle filler; someone who doesn’t wail at the sight of her face” (128). She suffers from exhaustion: “If someone would take P’tit off her hands for only an hour, even, carry him out of hearing range so she could get some sleep” (132). And she longs for her life pre-baby: “Frankly, she’s sick of waiting hand and foot on this tiny, unsmiling stranger. She wouldn’t drown him in a bucket, but she can’t say much more than that. Guilt hangs on her like a lead apron. There are moments, tying a diaper or transferring P’tit from one arm to the other, when Blanche begins to feel competent at this kind of drudgery, but that doesn’t help; it only sharpens the feeling of estrangement from herself” (146).
Of course, maternal love prevails. Eventually, it is not only P’tit’s well-being but that of all orphaned and abused and abandoned children that Blanche considers: “Blanche is almost too angry to speak. Another baby? . . . Was this one nudged along toward his death? she wonders. Did anyone in the asylum feed him even? Hold him? All the missing children. Washed into the world against their will, to do their time, a day or a year, before being sent out of it again” (300). Blanche’s growth as a parent is convincing too. She admits to her son that “Your Maman’s a flawed jewel . . . and there’s no fixing that. There’ll be no overnight metamorphosis” as she vows to “bind P’tit to her with indefatigable love” (371).
The book is full of interesting quirky characters. Jenny is perhaps the most eccentric of all, but Blanche comes a close second, an exploited woman who seeks her independence and happiness like a thoroughly modern woman would. There is no difficulty differentiating among the characters though, admittedly, the men are not usually portrayed in a very positive way.
It is clear that the author did considerable research into the case on which she based her fiction. She has even posted a 20+-page annotated list of sources on her website: (http://www.emmadonoghue.com/images/pdf/the-san-miguel-mystery-the-documents.pdf). She succeeds in making San Francisco in the 1870s come alive, even including snippets of the lyrics of old songs popular in that era.
I certainly recommend this book. It provides material both exotic and familiar. Forget the naysayers; give the book a try. “How do you know until you try” (370)?