Bookshots: 'Frog Music' by Emma Donoghue
Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review
Who Wrote It?
Emma Donoghue, award-winning author of Room, as well as numerous novels, radio, stage and screenplays. More info at her website.
Plot in a Box:
The events leading up to and directly following the murder of Jenny Bonnet, a renowned 19th century San Franciscan frog-catcher who scoffed the law and wore men's clothing. Frog Music is told through the eyes of Blanche Beunon, one of Jenny's last good friends. It's also based on a true story.
Invent a new title for this book:
San Francisco: Fire Walk With Me
Read this if you like:
Historical Fiction in general (a genre I'm admittedly not that familiar with), plus character-driven works like Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady or Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.
Meet the book's lead:
Blanche Beunon, a French expat sex worker and star performer at the House of Mirrors burlesque. She's feisty and opinionated, but she also battles low self-esteem, a frustrating dichotomy.
Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:
Lizzie Brocheré, who played Grace in American Horror Story: Asylum.
Setting: Would you want to live there?
In my last Bookshots review, Hustle by Tom Pitts, I stated that I would not want to live in modern-day San Francisco because the winters are chilly and the rent is too damn high. Well, the rent is comparatively cheap in 19th century San Fran, and the city is under the sweaty thumb of a heatwave, so sure, I'll live there!
Oh wait, there's a smallpox outbreak? Never mind.
What was your favorite sentence?
People have no idea of the things that don't happen to them—the lives they're not living, the deaths stalking them—and thank Christ for that! Hard enough to get through each day without glimpsing all the hovering possibilities, like insects thickening the air.
When I first caught wind of Frog Music, it was touted as a murder mystery. Indeed, even the author calls her book a "crime novel" in the afterword. The thing is, this is most definitely not a crime novel or murder mystery. It borrows elements from that genre, but Frog Music is a character study, through and through.
Is this a bad thing? I've seen more than a few GoodReads reviews in which the "critics" voice vehement anger at this, for lack of a better term, false advertising, but I don't see it that way. I referenced David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks in the alternate title section above for a specific reason: both narratives feature the murder of a prominent and popular young woman, and while all the characters are involved, even obliquely, with the investigation of said murder, the narratives are not actually about the murder—they're about the characters. Now, this isn't to say that crime novels or murder mysteries aren't concerned with character, but rather that the main emphasis is on the clues and facts that well up throughout the course of the story—i.e., the plot is a bit more important than the characters (Silence of the Lambs, I think, is a good example of this).
This is the core distinction between traditional crime narratives and Frog Music: ostensibly speaking, there isn't much of a plot. But again, I stress, this isn't a bad thing. Donoghue places Blanche in the most impossible of situations, weighing down her protagonist with difficult choices and conflicting emotions, making this a novel void of a page-turning plot, but rich with introspection and character-driven action. Slow in pace at times, but nonetheless compelling, even though Blanche, as previously mentioned, can be a bit frustrating (she makes some poor choices).
Furthermore, because Frog Music is based on true events, we get a glimpse into another world, a different time. Donoghue doesn't bog down the text with factoids and descriptions of the era; rather, she plunks the reader smack in the thick of 19th century San Francisco like the Doctor landing his T.A.R.D.I.S. at a random point in time, and saying to his companion, "Okay, get out there and experience this moment in history." We see first hand the devastating effects of the heatwave, the smallpox outbreak, the juxtaposition of a city populated by liberated people and the stifling, conservative laws presiding over them; the racism, the sexism, the cruel environments endured by infants and children—it's all there, effortlessly weaved into the narrative by Donoghue. It's almost as though Blanche, given her real-life (and sometimes made-up) experiences, is the perfect guide to the history of this prominent West Coast city.
So if you're dead-set on reading a classic crime novel, don't pick up this book. However, if you're in the mood to read a good book rife with interesting, imperfect characters and integrated history lessons, Frog Music is for you.
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