Title: Frog Music
Author: Emma Donoghue
Genre: Historical Fiction, Crime
Rating: Liked it (3 out of 5)
In the middle of a San Francisco heat wave, Blanche Beunon is rushing home when she is knocked over by a bicyclist, Jenny Bonnet. Bruised but otherwise o.k., Jenny takes Blanche for dinner to apologise before admitting she has nowhere to live and ending up sleeping on Blanche’s couch. Jenny is like no one Blanche has ever met. She dresses in men’s clothes for a start and carries a gun, the complete opposite of Blanche whose entire life revolves around how she looks.
Blanche is a Dove, a burlesque dancer and a prostitute (though no one would use such a vulgar word). She moved to San Francisco with her lover, Arthur and friend Ernest from France. Both men live off Blanche’s wages, gambling most of it away at the Faro table. With Arthur since she was 15, Blanche doesn’t see anything wrong with this. That is until Jenny starts asking her questions, questions she hasn’t ever asked herself. Including why Blanche sent her and Arthur’s son to a baby farm.
It’s this question that sets the events of the book in motion because Blanche decides to bring her son home. And stop working. Neither sits well with Arthur or Ernest, who feel their hold slipping away and try to take back control. Unsure where to turn, Blanche looks to Jenny and the pair leave the city, only for Jenny to end up dead and Blanche searching for the killer.
Based on a true story, Frog Music opens with Jenny’s murder and it’s a great opener, one that really drew me in. The next 100 or so pages then left me wondering if this was all I was going to get. I found them incredibly slow as the story went back and forth over the previous month and how Blanche and Jenny ended up on the run before moving into the present and Blanche trying to solve the murder and get her son back. At this point, it picked up the pace, rushing at times towards the big reveal (or not as this was an unsolved murder) and I started to enjoy myself.
I did also have to wonder about the characters. I am not sure one had a redeeming characteristic…maybe Blanche with her late-found maternal instinct. Normally, that would put me off. I find it hard to like a book when I don’t like the characters. In this case, though, I felt ambiguous towards them vs. outright dislike. Jenny and Blanche are survivors and, and such, I found myself forgiving them, especially given how lawless San Fransisco was at this time (Emma Donohugue does a great job painting a picture of the city as seedy, dirty, sweaty and dangerous).
This meant that, in the end, I am sorry to say I didn’t care too much who-did-it or whether they were brought to justice or about the book overall. It was well written and I liked it but didn’t love it. Not for me.