Sunday, May 11, 2014

Frog Music

Frog Music
Emma Donoghue
4.5 / 5

Published 2014

First Sentence
"Sitting on the edge of the bed in the front room, Blanche stoops to rip at the laces of her gaiters."
Publisher's Description:
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.

Dear Reader,

This book thoroughly enchanted me.  I did partly race through it in order to have read as much as possible before going to see this author give a talk (more on that in a future post!), but I also just didn't want to put it down (or, er, stop listening - I audiobooked this, which I highly recommend doing - great reader!).

I don't know what it was about this story in particular, because as you probably know by now, I'm a sucker for historical fiction.  This was just one of many that I've found myself reading lately.  I first loved the setting of this book: 1876 San Francisco, so post both the gold rush and the Civil War, but before the city or state had really settled into their new identities.  This made for a really interesting background to a fascinating real-life story, fictionalized by Donoghue.  I have to admit that I wasn't really the biggest fan of Room, so I was a bit wary of this new book, but I thought the premise sounded promising enough to give it a shot - and boy, am I glad I did!  The historical details she added - everything from burlesque shows to high wheelers to frog-catching to awful "health facilities" which would never stand up in court today - really made the story.  Blanche's former life in a French circus was also fascinating to hear about, especially in light of her new life in America, complete with the awful, opportunistic men who were apparently pretty typical companions to French immigrants at the time.  And their house was based in Chinatown, which at the time still featured oddities such as new laws against the use of bucket yokes to carry large loads. I just loved all of the details that Donoghue added to her story to make it so much more real and vivid to the reader.  This was especially great because the bones of the story (Jenny's reputation and murder) actually did happen in 1876 California, and Donoghue crafted her novel around what she thought might have transpired on those hot summer nights to lead up to Jenny Bonnet's death.

The friendship between Blanche and Jenny was fun to watch develop, and was certainly the central part of the story.  Even though they had just met, they had a relationship much like dissimilar sisters.  They both leaned on and supported each other, without really even realizing they were doing so.  Blanche often found Jenny frustrating, as she watched the woman deliberately dress like a man (there were also laws against that at the time) and get herself into various scrapes and adventures on a regular basis.  Jenny herself often seemed somewhat simple at times, but really she just enjoyed the little things in life, and didn't let others stop her from what she wanted to do.  It was a brave way for a woman to be at that time, and it's probably why I loved the character so much.  Jenny definitely taught Blanche how to take care of herself for the first time in her life.  Her influence was life-changing, and her legacy continued on long after she was murdered.

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