Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
So much happens in the first few pages, you might need to re-read them a few times before moving on. Blanche is covered in blood, while Jenny lies dead. “Not quite a month ago,” Blanche was again screaming because of Jenny, this time having just been thrown to the ground in a collision with Jenny’s “high-wheeler.” Over the next 400 pages (or almost 13 hours if you choose to go aural), Emma Donoghue (best known for her chilling phenomenon Room) meticulously fills in the shattering four weeks between Blanche and Jenny’s first and final meetings.
In the summer of 1876, the two women – both originally French, although decades separate their immigrations –called San Francisco home. The City was stifled by unbearable heat, while a smallpox epidemic claimed hundreds of lives. At 24, Blanche Beunon was a celebrated erotic dancer with earnings substantial enough that she could own the building in which she lived with her dandy lover Arthur and his protegé companion Ernest.
Into their comfortable arrangement intrudes Jenny Bonnet, a cross-dressing free spirit who asks all the sorts of questions Blanche never wants to answer. Infamous for her unconventional habits and lifestyle – she’s no stranger to the local penal system – Jenny survives in the City by supplying French and Chinese restaurants with frogs, although she certainly has no qualms about thieving a few things here and there.
Jenny’s sharp observations and piercing questions send Blanche to reclaim her baby boy from a heinous establishment for effectively abandoned infants and children. The baby’s rescue coincides with Arthur’s collapse, and too soon, she realizes that she’s been the primary provider for two less-than-gentleman. A final, violently charged argument sends Blanche running for her life, although Jenny is the one who ends up dead. Whatever their differences, Blanche is determined to bring her only friend’s murderer to justice.
While narrator Khristine Hvam performs quite the spirited reading, Donoghue’s eighth novel ultimately needs to be finished on the page [more reason to visit libraries!]. The aural version leaves out Donoghue’s all-important “Afterword,” in which she explains the fascinating, can’t-turn-away facts that created her latest fiction, as well as a detailed section of “Song Notes,” which offers history and tidbits about the abundant music referenced throughout. The obvious importance of the music to the narrative makes Hvam a questionable casting choice – her Frenglish is plenty mellifluous, but her singing most definitely is not. Thankfully she attempts only a few of the musical selections.
Digressions aside, however you choose to imbibe here, the best advice – couldn’t resist – is to just leap in. Donoghue weaves such an intoxicating, irresistible web that over a century after the still-unsolved murder, her sly, careful reveal is certainly fantastic fiction wholly worth believing.