Thursday, April 10, 2014

Frog Music

by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue is one of my favorite writers. I first read Room, which I loved, then Slammerkin, which was very different but equally enjoyable, and now I've finished her latest novel, Frog Music. Frog Music is part Western, part murder mystery, part medical thriller. But mostly, it is the story of what it is to be a woman in difficult circumstances. Blanche is a famous burlesque dancer and "fallen dove" in 1876 San Francisco, who is in full control of her life. She dances, sees to her micheton, and is even landlord for the building in which she and her maque, Arthur, and their third-wheel, Ernest live. But when Blanche runs into (or is run into by) Jenny Bonnet on her bicycle, Blanche's life is changed forever.

I so admire Donoghue's skill at storytelling. She paints the full picture of San Francisco, crowded with colorful characters. Jenny Bonnet is infamous around San Francisco. She is continuously arrested for wearing pants, and never backs down from a fight. Donoghue used what information she could find about Jenny, and took off from there. Within the first few pages, Jenny is shot dead. The rest of the novel is about how Jenny affected everyone she know, especially Blanche. Over the course of their tragically short but nonetheless influential friendship, Jenny asks Blanche questions about her life, which in turn cause Blanche to question choices she's made.

Unprepared for motherhood, and Arthur uninterested in being a father, Blanche gave up her son P'tit Arthur, to live on a farm. When Jenny asks about P'tit, Blanche has few answers. So she decides to find P'tit and visit him. When she finds P'tit, not in a farm outside the city as she expected, but rather in a dark, congested house, serving as a baby farm, Blanche snatches him up to bring home. Suddenly a full-time mother, Blanche is forced to re-evaluate her life.

Donoghue's writing is vivid and expertly paced. Just when you're swept up by the story of Blanche rescuing P'tit, Donoghue transports you forward in time again to investigate Jenny's murder. When I met her when she spoke at BC, I told her her pacing creates just the right amount of angst in the reader.

Her talk at BC was incredible. I could have listened to her speak about writing and research all night. What I especially respect is the amount of responsibility she feels when undertaking a project of historical fiction. She wants to present these people as who they were; she won't turn saints into villains or vice versa. And I think she's successful in sticking to a true story and a true time line while fleshing out their personalities and situations. The characters who populate Frog Music were real (with the exception of the nice journalist, who Donoghue had to invent), and Donoghue has given them another life and additional fame, which these bohemians would have relished.

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