Sunday, April 13, 2014
Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown 2014
"Fish or cut bait, but don't gripe."
Frog Music is a novel of historical fiction set in the streets of San Francisco in 1876. It is a city, as the author notes, hit by "twin plagues" of smallpox and a terrible heat wave. At its southern boundary is San Miguel Station, where as the novel opens, two women are sharing a room. One of them, Blanche, bends down to untangle a knot on the gaiter clinging to her calf; the other, Jenny, has her head down on the pillow half asleep. At that moment, someone decides to fire a gun into the room from outside and Jenny is dead. This very real crime was never officially solved, but in Frog Music, Emma Donoghue offers her readers a possible and plausible solution, one that has it roots in the moment Blanche and Jenny met for the first time. However, the who-may-have-done-it isn't the biggest mystery in this book by a long shot; in fact, for me, the crime aspect of this book just wasn't that big of a deal. The central focus for me was on how Jenny's chance meeting and resulting friendship with Blanche had a major impact on both of their lives.
The main character in this book is definitely Blanche. Formerly a circus acrobat in France, now, a year and half later, she's a dancer -- an "expert tease, an allumeuse who lights the flame and snuffs it, lights and snuffs it," -- and "every dip, sway, pout wiggle, grind she converts into greenbacks in her head..." She's also a high-class prostitute. When Blanche and Jenny meet during a chance accident, Blanche is taken by this strange, secretive woman who sings little ditties, likes stories, dresses in men's clothing and catches frogs for her livelihood. As she notes, she hasn't had as much fun with "a stranger" since before leaving France. Jenny also has a "talent for putting her nose in other people's business. And her finger on sore points," one of which is Blanche's baby P'tit Arthur, named after Blanche's lover. P'tit, now about a year old, was sent out to a "farm, for his health," and Blanche's visits with him have become fewer and fewer. She's bored, the visits are routine, and she's waiting for a time "till he's got some spark in him, till he could be said to be thriving." Jenny's questions, however, prompt her to visit her baby at the farm, and what Blanche witnesses there causes her to take her baby with her, a decision that will lead Blanche to some pretty harsh realizations about herself, her trade and the people who supposedly care about her. The story starts with Jenny's murder and part of it follows Blanche after that event; the other part focuses on what is happening in the characters' lives up to the moment of Jenny's death, most especially the major impact of Blanche's friendship with Jenny.
I loved all of the rich historical descriptions, even those relating the harsh realities facing women and children in those days, and I appreciated all of the research that went into this novel. Throughout the book, the author vividly immerses the reader in the historical setting -- beyond the blazing heat, she also includes the sordidness of life in parts of the city where the virginity of young girls is auctioned off, where baby farming (read warehousing) is a perfect solution for unwanted babies and a great business for brothel owners, and where smallpox can run rampant due to unsanitary and crowded conditions. And, of course, there's the music of the time -- entertaining songs which are given in small bursts throughout the book, then discussed in an appendix at the back of the novel. I love historical fiction that is well written, and Frog Music definitely falls into that category. Having said all of that, for me the novel succeeds less as a mystery/crime novel (which in retrospect seems kind of gimmicky now) and more as a look at how a woman with very little in the way of maternal instinct and very little understanding about the needs of others discovers exactly what she's capable of in the worst of circumstances -- and just what her discovery has cost her. Blanche's quest to find both the killer and some amount of justice for Jenny seemed a little forced and frankly, I just wasn't that interested, although as I noted earlier that the author's solution is entirely plausible.
Some caveats for other casual readers: lots of graphic detail in terms of sex and smallpox, the baby farm scene is just downright gutwrenching, and the callousness of people in this novel was just infuriating at times. Overall, while I found the crime component to be a big "meh," there is a lot I liked about this book. I won't say I loved it because I didn't, but it was one I didn't want to put down. I recommend it, maybe not so much to crime fiction fans or historical mystery fans, but as a work of historical fiction in general; I also predict that Frog Music, like Room, (which I wasn't gaga over either) will be a huge bestseller.