I never read Room. I know it’s supposedly wonderful, but I couldn’t get past the subject matter. I was curious about Emma Donogue, though, so when I found the audiobook version of Frog Music at my library, I decided to give it a listen.
About the Book:
Blanche Beunon is perfectly happy with her life in San Francisco, where she’s been since she and her two fellow ex-circus performers emigrated from France. Her burlesque performances are highly sought after, as is her company afterward (by those gentleman who can afford her). But everything changes when the unconventional Jenny Bonnet crashes into Blanche on her high-wheeler bicycle. As the two women grow closer, it seems like nothing in Blanche’s life remains untouched.
Then Jenny is shot one night, on a remote edge of the city, in the room where she and Blanche have gone to lie low. (Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler — it’s where the book starts!) Blanche is sure she knows who killed her friend, but no one will believe her. Fearing for her own life and the life of her infant son, who has gone missing, she attempts to keep herself safe while she puts together evidence to support her suspicions, along the way uncovering a side of Jenny she never knew.
What an interesting book. It actually begins with the night Jenny is killed and then dips back into the past, starting with the day just a month earlier when Jenny crashes into Blanche on her bicycle. From there, the story moves forward on two timelines: the first narrating what happened from the women’s first encounter to the night of the murder, and the second covering Blanche’s frantic days following Jenny’s death. This alternating unspooling worked well and kept things interesting.
Donoghue did an excellent job bringing to life San Francisco in 1876, when the new and vastly multicultural city was gripped by a smallpox outbreak and sweltering under a horrific heat wave. Perhaps part of my appreciation comes from the fact that I live near San Francisco and recognized many of the landmarks Blanche mentions, have walked down some of the same streets. But I think even without the familiarity, I’d have enjoyed Donoghue’s rendering. On top of that, Jenny and Blanche are both music lovers, and Donoghue wove snippets of songs throughout the story, from both their mouths and the mouths of other characters. The music adds an additional dimension to the already rich setting.
Frog Music is based on a crime that was never solved. Donoghue managed to piece together a plausible explanation, complete with a reason why the truth never came to light. I’m not sure how much of the story is based on truth and how much was stretched or fabricated, but it does make for an intriguing and enjoyable read.
As I mentioned, I went the audio route, and I’m glad I did. When a book is heavy on a foreign language, as this one is on French, I often prefer to listen to it rather than frustrating myself by trying to slog through the written text. For whatever reason, though I don’t understand it in either form, I’d rather listen. (Donoghue did a wonderful job getting the gist of any French she included across without directly translating it, which I very much appreciated.) The narrator, Khristine Hvam, was fine. No complaints from me. Her accents were good, her singing voice passable (yep, she sang some of the songs!). Definitely one I’d recommend.
The Verdict: Enjoyable
I liked Frog Music. I thought it was a well told, absorbing story that didn’t stretch the limits of believability beyond what I was willing to accept. The audio production is good. Overall, a nice introduction to Emma Donoghue. Based on this experience, I’m sure I’ll read more from her in the future.
What novels have you enjoyed that were based, at least in part, on a forgotten tidbit of history?