So, funny thing about listening to this one in audiobook form, should you (like myself) choose to play books at 1.5 speed or more: the speaking will be a good and understandable pace, but every time a song gets sung by the reader, it comes out in a silly little lilt that sounded quite humorous to me every time, even if the mood of the novel or the song itself at that point was not supposed to be cheerful and funny. So fair warning about that one.
Frog Music opens with the scene of a murder in 1876 San Francisco, of a young woman named Jenny. Jenny is a colourful character who was known throughout town for wearing men’s clothing and for catching frogs for the local restaurants to cook. Her death is witnessed by her friend, Blanche, a French burlesque dancer who is convinced that she, not Jenny, was the intended murder victim at the hands of her lover. Through a series of flashbacks and present-day scenes, Blanche recounts her life upon meeting Jenny, their short-lived friendship, and the trial and discoveries made after her friend’s death. Perhaps she didn’t know her friend as well as she thought, and secrets about the city and its inhabitants are revealed along the course of the unravelling mystery.
When I reviewed another novel titled The Lonely Hearts Hotel earlier this year, I complained about the unrelenting misery of it all. Frog Music also has quite a lot of morose content included, in the realities of the lives of characters and citizens of San Francisco –including a small pox epidemic, racism towards the Chinese populations of the city, young children being sent to boarding houses where they live in neglect and squalor, and the treatment of sex workers –but manages to incorporate all of this in a way that feels more balanced and necessary within the story. Though from time to time I still did question if everything was truly needed, or if it was just there to add to the edge and make us understand the cruelty of existence at times (don’t worry, I got it).
As new details about the days leading up the killing are revealed, a compelling story about womanhood and its many forms takes shape. The clues about the final reveal sprinkled along the way are also quite effective in leading to a conclusion that doesn’t come right out of the blue, but remains in mystery long enough that it doesn’t telegraph itself too soon and remove the dramatic flourishes. I did, however, find the “present” elements as Blanche figures out what happened to her friend to be less-engaging than the past days and flashbacks to learn what led up to the murder.
But despite the intriguing mystery, strong mood, and setting in this novel there is something still lingering that didn’t quite resolve in my brain. Jenny is such a well-known (and in some cases, beloved) figure around town, but there is still so much Blanche, and therefore the reader, doesn’t know about her, and these missing aspects of her character are likely there to reinforce the idea that people keep secrets close to their hearts no matter how well we might think we know them, but to me almost feels like these mysteries and questions about Jenny and being kept elusive to create more of a mystique of the character than to really let us in and know her. It could also have been the voices put on by the reader of this audiobook, but Jenny flits in and out like a wacky little character concept, rather than an actual being. Sure we get some backstory and trauma, but where is the bridge? How do we actually see her in scenes besides being this sassy little force of nature? Blanche is our protagonist and POV so we only see what she sees, but Jenny is so much the center of her story, “who was this girl, really?” doesn’t feel totally fulfilling in the end, you know?
Ultimately, Frog Music was a story with lots of elements and points of interest, and I did want all to be revealed about what happened to Jenny. It left me not fully certain until the end, but did also feel a little out of steam as things wound down.