Emma Donoghue is such a disgustingly talented writer, I can hardly stand it. I (along with the rest of the world) was transfixed by Room, her wildly successful 2010 novel written from the perspective of a five-year-old boy born in captivity to a kidnapping victim and her abductor.
Then I read Frog Music.
Seriously, the woman needs to be stopped. I mean, I have things to do, you know? Walks to take, dishes to wash, a cat to pet. Life to live. If she keeps writing these devastatingly perfect novels, I will just not be able to get anything done around here.
I'm sure you're much more industrious than me, not at all interested in shirking your responsibilities in favor of fiction. But just in case, here's the setup: Blanche Beunon is a dancer, prostitute, and French immigrant living in San Francisco in 1876. One night, as she bends to remove her gaiters, an unknown person fires a shotgun into her rented bedroom. The shot misses Blanche by inches but fatally wounds her friend Jenny Bonnet, a plucky daredevil who cavorts about town in men's clothing, even though it's technically illegal for a woman to do so.
After Blanche recovers from shock, she's determined to find Jenny's killer. Her first suspicions fall to her former lover Arthur, with whom she's just parted ways. Blanche met Arthur when he was a trapeze artist in a circus in France, and they came to America together, along with Arthur's trapeze partner Ernest. Arthur has good reason to dislike Jenny, since it is she who points out to Blanche that perhaps it isn't fair for Blanche to support two men and their gambling habits by renting herself out. It's also Jenny's probing questions that lead Blanche to reclaim her one-year-old son from a “baby farm,” a grim, dark room with babies piled three to a crib, where he has lived almost his whole life.
There's so much to like about this book: the gritty, evocative urban setting, the extensively-researched historical touches, and most of all the lovable, flawed characters. I'm not sure what makes some imperfect characters endearing and some abhorrent, but whatever the secret sauce is, Donoghue gives Blanche a generous dollop. Blanche is appallingly selfish and at times worryingly obtuse, but I absolutely loved her and rooted for her all the way. This is not the tired storyline where a miserable, depleted woman, once forced into a life of sexual slavery by evil men, is freed by a do-gooder who tells her to believe in herself. Blanche may not be the sharpest tack, and she may not be the best mother ever, but at least she's not going to sit around bemoaning her fate (which, she recognizes truthfully, was caused primarily by her own choices).
Frog Music deals in some heavy themes, but it still has the feel of a light and fun romp, thanks to the spirit of the quirky Jenny, and to Blanche, who refuses to be cowed. It will be a great addition to your reading list this summer.