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Review: Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

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Highlights: The view into San Francisco's seedier side of life.
Synopsis: When Blanche Beunon meets Jenny Bonnet, she has no idea that Jenny is about to change her life and her attitude forever.
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The fun and spunky Jenny Bonnet is an endearing and realistic character.


A tedious plot and a whiny main character.

Posted May 12, 2014 by

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When Emma Donoghue published her novel Room in 2010, no one could have guessed that it would spend weeks on bestsellers lists across the world, or that it would win some of the most coveted awards for fiction writing. In March of this year, Donoghue released Frog Music, her first novel since Room. Based in part on the real-life, unsolved murder of a woman in San Francisco in the late 1800s, Frog Music is an unusual study of the seedier side of life in one of America’s favorite cities.

Frog Music covers a one-month time period in the late summer of 1876 in San Francisco, California. The story starts in September with the murder of Jenny Bonnet, a notorious cross-dresser whose occupation is catching the frogs that are sold throughout the city as delicacies. Her friend Blanche Beunon, a burlesque dancer at the famed House of Mirrors, is with Jenny when she dies. Blanche later tells the investigators that her “maqué” Arthur and his friend Ernest killed Jenny because Blanche left Arthur.

The book then goes back in time to a month earlier to reveal how Blanche and Jenny met when Jenny accidentally mowed her down with her “high wheeler” bicycle. Upon first meeting, Blanche, who has never had any real female friends, feels drawn to the carefree older woman. Blanche opens up to Jenny about her lover, her job, and even her baby, P’tit. Because of her job dancing, and sometimes prostituting herself to the highest bidder after the show, Blanche and Arthur send P’tit to a “baby farm” where he can grow up in a healthier environment. Only when Jenny begins to ask questions about this farm and the baby’s misshapen appearance in his picture does Blanche take a sudden interest in the environment her son inhabits. The next day Blanche finds out the awful truth: P’tit is being kept in a house with hundreds of other babies, and he has been terribly neglected. Angry, Blanche takes P’tit with her, but when she arrives home, Arthur is not amused. In fact, he even seems to know exactly where P’tit has been.

Over the next few weeks, things slowly fall apart for Blanche. The world she built with her beloved Arthur is a sham, and Blanche realizes for the first time how everyone in her life has used her. Finally, Blanche runs from Arthur, but in her flight, she leaves P’tit, and when Jenny offers to help her, it ends up costing Jenny her life. With Blanche scared to return home but longing for her son, she is caught in a difficult situation where she must decide between recovering her only child or bringing to justice those who murdered her only friend.

Frog Music is built on a good premise. According to the author’s website, Jenny Bonnet was a real person who was often arrested for wearing men’s clothing in public. She was murdered, a crime that went unsolved, on September 16, 1876. From this situation, Donoghue creates the most interesting character in her book. The fictional Jenny is full of spunk and refuses to fit into anyone’s mold of how a female should dress or behave. She is outspoken and always spoiling for a fight. Blanche describes her thus: “Jenny’s like a good strong drink when you didn’t even realize you needed one…Jenny’s an odd kind of woman: part boy, part clown, part animal. An original. Accountable to no one. Bound by no ties, who cocks her hat as she pleases.” Of Frog Music’s characters, she is the most realistic and endearing.

The same cannot be said for Blanche Beunon, the story’s main character. Once she recovers P’tit from the baby farm, Blanche spends most of her time whining about him. Much to her chagrin, he urinates on her beautiful clothing a few times, and he cries non-stop, making Blanche wish on more than one occasion that she’d remained ignorant of his whereabouts and his condition. Although I tried to be sympathetic towards Blanche, I found page after page of her mixed feelings about her son to be tedious. In fact, the author returned to this segment so many times that I was forced to stop listening to the book on more than one occasion.

Another annoyance with the novel is that the author flits back and forth in time too often. Donoghue starts the book in September with Jenny’s death, which forces the reader to not become too attached to the character. Afterwards, Donoghue moves back and forth between the two months of August and September until the plot becomes confusing. Perhaps allowing the story to flow chronologically would have made for a smoother read, but it may have detracted from her ending, which does include a few surprises.

I listened to Frog Music as an Audible book. It took me almost six weeks to complete the nearly thirteen-hour long novel because of the slow-moving middle section of the work. On a positive note, Khristine Hvam served as narrator, and her performance was quite respectable. Because all of the main characters have ties to France, Donoghue incorporates a great deal of French vocabulary into the work. Hearing Hvam speak the terms made them easier to understand, even for someone who has limited experience with the French language.

Frog Music is an ambitious book, but it just does not live up to the precedent Donoghue set with Room. Donoghue is a great writer, but this work falls short of her capabilities.

Frog Music: A Novel (Hardcover)

By (author): Emma Donoghue

From the author of the worldwide bestseller Room: “Her greatest achievement yet…Emma Donoghue shows more than range with FROG MUSIC-she shows genius.” — Darin Strauss, author of Half a Life

Summer of 1876: San Francisco is in the fierce grip of a record-breaking heat wave and a smallpox epidemic. Through the window of a railroad saloon, a young woman named Jenny Bonnet is shot dead.

The survivor, her friend Blanche Beunon, is a French burlesque dancer. Over the next three days, she will risk everything to bring Jenny’s murderer to justice-if he doesn’t track her down first. The story Blanche struggles to piece together is one of free-love bohemians, desperate paupers, and arrogant millionaires; of jealous men, icy women, and damaged children. It’s the secret life of Jenny herself, a notorious character who breaks the law every morning by getting dressed: a charmer as slippery as the frogs she hunts.

In thrilling, cinematic style, FROG MUSIC digs up a long-forgotten, never-solved crime. Full of songs that migrated across the world, Emma Donoghue’s lyrical tale of love and bloodshed among lowlifes captures the pulse of a boomtown like no other.
List Price: $27.00 USD
New From: $12.89 USD In Stock
Used from: $8.90 USD In Stock
Release date April 1, 2014.

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Mollie Smith Waters

Mollie Smith Waters teaches American literature, theater, and speech at a small community college in rural Alabama. Her hobbies include reading, writing, traveling, and walking.


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