Emma Donaghue’s Frog Music should have been a slam dunk for me. It’s a period piece murder mystery with a European element. I regret to say that it fell a little short of the mark for me. I think most people would enjoy the novel, however, so this won’t be an entirely negative review. Frog Music tells the story of the murder of Jenny Bonnet, a cross-dressing, walking, talking Mark Twain character in 19th century San Francisco, and the efforts of her friend Blanche Beunon, a professional dancer and companion, to discover the culprit and bring them to justice.
This is my first novel by Donaghue; I think she is a talented writer and this makes me interested to check out some of her other works. One of the things I really liked about this book is how vividly painted the scenes are. This novel takes place in the middle of a heat wave and small pox epidemic. Donaghue describes the characters and settings in such a way that you can really get a picture of their surroundings and moods. I am not one to have much familiarity with our country’s history of westward expansion, sadly, so I can’t speak to how accurate her descriptions of the city are, or the way people lived in its early days. The novel switches back and forth between the time prior to the murder and the time after it within the same chapters, so it takes some getting used to. Especially when one realizes that the times are actually quite close together. I enjoyed most of the characters I was supposed to enjoy, and loathed the ones I wasn’t. As the story focuses almost entirely on Blanche and Jenny, they’re the ones with which you gain the most familiarity. Blanche is unlikeable, but isn’t so set in stone that she has no possibility of redemption. Jenny is murdered within a few pages of the reader’s acquaintance, so even if she weren’t fairly circumspect about her own past, we would probably find it hard to grow that attached to her. We know she is doomed, so why bother? Arthur and Ernest, Blanche’s lover and sometime-friend respectively, are tertiary characters and treated as such, so we don’t grow entirely familiar. The mystery itself is a bit drawn out, but I actually was surprised by the big reveal. I liked how things turned out in the end, though it may seem sort of convenient and out of nowhere to some.
All this sounds good, so why was I disappointed? Frog Music was a Kindle Deal of the Day last summer, when I was on maternity leave with grand designs of plowing through heaps of books. Well, I quickly realized that was a joke, and just now, 14 months later, got around to reading it. I am thankful now that I didn’t read it in the throes of post-partum hormones; even now some of the subject matter really got to me. This is sort of a spoiler, but not really for the actual mystery, so I guess it’s more of a trigger warning. We come to find out that Blanche and Arthur had a child a little over a year prior to the novel’s start. She developed what sounds like a wicked case of mastitis from nursing her hungry little boy (named Petit Arthur, aka P’tit). In a fog of infection she asks Arthur to send him away to a nurse. She’s told it’s some sort of farm away from the city and its small pox dangers. What we discover is that he has been living in a horrible tenement, with hundreds of other babies, malnourished, neglected, but alive. The descriptions of the home in which he was living weren’t actually all that vivid, but now that I am a mom, the slightest hint of infant abuse is incredibly upsetting for me. The rest of the novel, I couldn’t care less about who murdered Jenny, I just wanted to know that P’tit ends up ok. I finished the novel and then happened to read some of the notes afterward. I had missed entirely that this is based on a real murder mystery. Donaghue read a series of newspaper articles on the case and wrote her take on what probably happened. It ended up making me sad to find out what really happened to Blanche and P’tit in real life and so sadly, I ended up kind of depressed after reading this.
I think most people more able to distance themselves from such yucky subject matter will really enjoy this novel. I would have enjoyed it more if I never knew it was based on real people who ended up not having the best lives as well.