Two summers ago I was blown away by Emma Donogue’s Room. I definitely wasn’t the only one. I remember reading it in the car on a road trip, holding my breath, not paying attention to anything else. I was haunted by it afterwards. Even now, when I think about that book, I shiver remembering how messed up it was.
Messed up but totally brilliant, obviously.
Donoghue released Astray shortly after I read Room but I didn’t read it. And then Frog Music happened. Partially seduced by brilliant cover art (on either side of the border), a little bit because the Internet told me to read it, and then some more by the idea of the actual story.
Blanche Beunon is a burlesque dancer in 1870s San Francisco. She lives with her partner, Arthur and his really good close personal friend, Ernest in an apartment in a building that she owns. On her way home after a show one night she’s almost run over by a bicycle ridden by one Jenny Bonnet, a men’s clothes wearing, free spirited frog catcher, fresh out of a stint in jail for wearing men’s clothes. Blanche invites Jenny home with her and so the story takes off.
A month after their meeting, Jenny is shot dead and Blanche embarks on a quest to find out who did it, while fearing for her own life and trying to find her infant son.
Obviously this book isn’t Room, but it’s good. Donoghue is amazing at stage setting; this book takes place in the middle of a heat wave and I swear you can feel the stifling air as you read. San Francisco in 1876 comes to life before your eyes: the dying days of the California Gold Rush; the freedom that all kinds of ‘different’ people are finding in this city where anything goes; the lives of millionaires rubbing up against the struggles of the poorest; the festering air and fear of a smallpox epidemic ripping through the city. Music is also infused and brought to life in this book, like it was in Room. Songs that were popular in the days described are littered throughout the narrative.
I didn’t care for most of the characters in this one but I loved Jenny. I thought she was a totally original character (based on a real person) who brought out some of the better characteristics of the people around her. Until she meets Jenny, Blanche is a self-centered princess, more intent on living a life of comfort than concerning herself with the living conditions of a son she’s farmed out to god knows where. But even though most of the characters are horrible, it doesn’t take away from the book in any way. They work in the time they are living through.
Ultimately, what happened to Jenny is really sad. Donoghue found a way to give Jenny a completely tragic ending that is completely perfect. I found myself comparing it to Room a lot, which was probably unfair. But in this case, Frog Music stands up on it’s own.
And hey! Emma Donoghue lives in Canada (even though she’s Irish) so does this mean I’ve found a CanLit book that I’ve enjoyed?