I’ve been a fan of Donoghue’s writing since I read Slamerkin, a period piece about prostitution in London. Like that novel, this story goes back in history and tells the story of two women on the edge of San Francisco society in 1876. Blanche Beunon is a burlesque dancer, originally from France, who has come to San Francisco with her lover, Arthur, and his “friend,” Ernest. Blanche has become successful enough to buy the apartment building she lives in and to provide Arthur and Ernest with money to spend and gamble away. Early in the hot summer of 1876, Blanche meets Jenny Bonnet, a woman who dresses in men’s clothes, catches frogs for area restaurants, and seems a magnet for trouble. Though Jenny provokes Blanche to think about things she’d rather not, they develop a friendship. When Jenny is killed, Blanche feels compelled to find out who killed her friend and whether the bullets were originally meant for her.
Donoghue has based this story on a real unsolved crime and she makes the underworld of San Francisco come alive in a way that makes you feel the desperation and taste the grit. Blanche and Jenny inhabit a tough world where a woman can quickly be toppled from even a small position of power and where death and disease are everywhere. I happened to read this novel while I was binge watching the BBC show, Ripper Street, and the two mingled uncomfortably in my head but spoke to each other in interesting ways.
If you were hoping for a light romantic comedy, keep moving. This book is not for you. If you want a novel that makes a specific period and place come alive in ways both interesting and uncomfortable, then seek this one out. It’s well worth the read. (Read 6/07/14)