Frog Music

By Emma Donaghue

(Little, Brown and Company, $27, 416 pages)

Who is this author?

Born in Dublin, schooled at Cambridge, where she studied 18th century literature, and now a resident of Ontario, Emma Donoghue’s imaginative and haunting novel, “Room,” was an international bestseller in 2010, She also is the author of other bestsellers, such as “Slammerkin,” “The Sealed Letter,” “Landing,” “Life Mask,” “Hood” and “Stirfry.” and she has written several story collections: “The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits,” “Kissing the Witch,” and “Touchy Subjects.”  She also has written literary history, biography, stage and radio plays and fairy tales, She and her partner have two young children.

Donahue told an interviewer: “The youngest of eight children, I would never have been conceived if a papal bull hadn’t guilt-tripped my poor mother into flushing her pills down the toilet.”

What is this book about?

Set in 1876 in San Francisco, the story blends several frightening things: a killer heat wave, a killer epidemic of smallpox, and a killer who fatally shoots a young woman through the window of a saloon. And she is no ordinary victim: Jenny Bonnet was a cross-dressing bicyclist who made money by trapping frogs for restaurants to serve.

Jenny leaves behind a friend, Blanche Beunon, who is a burlesque show dancer. Blanche is out to avenge her friend’s murder before the killer gets her too, and spends three days on the hunt, while finding out about Jenny’s secret life in a booming society where few are playing by the rules. This is a historical thriller made even more powerful by its author’s literary skills.

Why you’ll like it:

Donahue is a master storyteller. In “Room,” she gave us the tale of a young woman imprisoned for years in a garden shed by a lunatic rapist who fathers her child, and it is from the innocent yet oddly knowing perspective of that child, 5-year-old Jack, that the story is spun. “Frog Music” is based on a true, never-solved murder that happened almost 150 years ago, but Donaghue makes the bawdy, brawling world of early San Francisco vivid and her imagined solution to the murder utterly believable. The characters are unusual, to say the least, the women are strong and the mystery is fascinating.  It’s a pleasure to read such an imaginative and well-written book.

What others are saying:

Booklist’s starred review says: “Donoghue flawlessly combines literary eloquence and vigorous plotting in her first full-fledged mystery, a work as original and multifaceted as its young murder victim. During the scorching summer of 1876, Jenny Bonnet, an enigmatic cross-dressing bicyclist who traps frogs for San Francisco’s restaurants, meets her death in a railroad saloon on the city’s outskirts. Exotic dancer Blanche Beunon, a French immigrant living in Chinatown, thinks she knows who shot her friend and why, but has no leverage to prove it and doesn’t know if she herself was the intended target. A compulsive pleasure-seeker estranged from her “fancy man,” Blanche searches desperately for her missing son while pursuing justice for Jenny, but finds her two goals sit in conflict. In language spiced with musical interludes and raunchy French slang, Donoghue brings to teeming life the nasty, naughty side of this ethnically diverse metropolis, with its brothels, gaming halls, smallpox-infested boardinghouses, and rampant child abuse. Most of her seedy, damaged characters really lived, and she not only posits a clever solution to a historical crime that was never adequately solved but also crafts around Blanche and Jenny an engrossing and suspenseful tale about moral growth, unlikely friendship, and breaking free from the past.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “In the sweltering fall of 1876, a San Francisco prostitute tracks a killer and searches for her stolen baby. Donoghue returns here to the historical fiction genre in which she first made her international mark, but she’s blended in the suspense craft she acquired writing her contemporary mega-seller Room. Who fired the shotgun blasts that blew away Jenny Bonnet while her friend Blanche bent down to take off her boots? Blanche believes it was her lover Arthur or his sidekick, Ernest, who have been living on her earnings as a high-priced erotic dancer/whore. They weren’t happy when Jenny goaded Blanche into retrieving her 1-year-old son, P’tit, from the ghastly holding pen for unwanted children where Arthur dumped him while Blanche was ill. And Jenny is killed while Blanche is hiding out in the countryside with her after an ugly scene with Arthur and Ernest that led Blanche to flee their apartment without P’tit. The men blame Jenny for Blanche’s newfound, unwelcome independence, but there are plenty of other people in San Francisco who dislike the defiant, cross-dressing frog-catcher, who presents herself as an untamed free spirit. There’s far more to Jenny’s story, we learn, as Donoghue cuts between Blanche’s hunt for her son in mid-September and the events of August, when her collision with bicycle-riding Jenny led to their unlikely friendship. By the time the murderer is revealed, we understand why Jenny knows so much about abandoned children, and we’ve seen how Blanche has been changed by her hesitant commitment to motherhood. (Some of the book’s funniest, most touching moments depict her early struggles to care for “this terrible visitor,” her baby.) Donoghue’s vivid rendering of Gilded Age San Francisco is notable for her atmospheric use of popular songs and slang in Blanche’s native French, but the book’s emotional punch comes from its portrait of a woman growing into self-respect as she takes responsibility for the infant life she’s created. More fine work from one of popular fiction’s most talented practitioners.”

From Barnes & Noble: “In a recent author Q and A, Emma Donoghue wrote, “One journalist kindly alerted me to the fact that there was a hoax in my Wikipedia entry, a claim that I was writing about ‘the murder of a cross-dressing frog-catcher!’—and was abashed when I told him it was true.” Fortunately, Jenny Bonnet, the pants-wearing victim in this evocative historical novel, is not painted here as an outlandish buffoon; in fact, she is modeled on an irrepressible, very real person who was savagely killed in San Francisco in 1876. Replete with vivid characters, lyrical asides and other atmospheric touches, Frog Music sounds just the right notes.”

Says Publishers Weekly:  “Donoghue’s first literary crime novel is a departure from her bestselling Room, but it’s just as dark and just as gripping as the latter. Based on the circumstances surrounding the grizzly real-life murder of Jenny Bonnet, a law-flouting, pants-wearing frog catcher who lived in San Francisco in the mid-1870s, this investigation into who pulled the trigger is told in episodic flashbacks from the point of view of Blanche Beunon. Blanche is a raunchy, self-absorbed burlesque dancer and French émigré who befriended the alluring Bonnet and was with her on the night she was killed. Also woven into the plot is Blanche’s sordid relationship with Albert Deneve, an ex–tightrope walker, and his minion Ernest, who may have had a hand in the murder while swindling Blanche out of house, home, and one-year-old baby. Aside from the obvious whodunit factor, the book is filled with period song lyrics and other historic details, expertly researched and flushed out. The sweltering heat wave and smallpox epidemic that afflicted thousands in 1876, the Sinophobic takedown of Chinese businesses, and the proliferation of baby farms—glorified dumping grounds for unwanted babies—are all integrated into the story of Bonnet’s tragic end. Donoghue’s signature talent for setting tone and mood elevates the book from common cliffhanger to a true chef d’oeuvre.”

“Donoghue’s latest novel has many facets, all of them fascinating…. Like her hair-raising best-seller Room, it incorporates the elements of a thriller; in fact, there’s enough puzzle here to qualify as a full-blooded mystery. Best of all, there’s Donoghue’s intricate examination of women in impossible circumstances, bound to repugnant men for survival but never broken by them…. Colorful French slang and period songs…flow through the novel lyrically, making the era as vital as the plot. Donoghue is acrobatic with her storytelling and language and paints the stinking city vividly…. [A] vibrant and remarkable novel,” says the San Jose Mercury News.

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library has this book now.

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