Oh, dear, I seem to have a problem, and that problem is walking home from the library with mountains of books that aren't actually on my to-read list. This would be one of those books. Why did I pick it up? I don't know. It was partly the cover; I have a thing for silhouette covers. I don't know why. This one is made of frogs, which is kind of cool, even if I'm apparently blind because I didn't realize that until I was more than halfway done with the book. Partly it was the title. Frog Music. It's kind of whimsical, isn't it? And partly it was the first paragraph of the description, which mentioned San Francisco in the late 1800s, a heat wave, and a smallpox epidemic. I love historical fiction, so the whole combination sounded ripe for the picking.
Frog Music is, by the way, not nearly as its title would lead one to believe. The title's a complicated thing, referring to a lot of different parts of the narrative, none of which are really central to it. I mean, I guess it could be, symbolically, but plot-wise it's not really all that relevant. Anyway, instead of being a whimsical, character-driven novel (what I expected; obviously not reading beyond the first paragraph of the description did not serve me well) this book unravels as a novel of frantic suspense. The book begins with the murder of Jenny Bonnet, best friend of Blanche, the main character. Blanche, though in shock, is convinced that she knows the identity of Jenny's murderer, and in the aftermath of the shooting sets out to both find justice for her friend and seek out the location of her missing child, known as P'tit. The novel jumps back and forth, between the days after the murder and the weeks leading up to it. Supporting characters are found in Arthur and Ernest, who share...interesting...relationships with Blanche, which mainly involve lots of sex and spending lots of Blanche's money.
Blanche is a really intriguing character for this story, far more so than Jenny, who is supposed to be the interesting one, being a cross-dressing, singing, high-wheeling, quirky character. Blanche, on the other hand, is...different. She works as a dancer doing "leg shows" at a burlesque, which involves stripping and singing and having rendezvous with the men who come to see her. Which Blanche enjoys. Which is cool. I mean, the whole exploitative nature of the industry of stripping and prostitution isn't cool, but that Blanche enjoys her sexual liberation (Is it liberation if it's always been like that? She doesn't become liberated at any point, she just is.) is refreshing. There is some slut-shaming, but it doesn't come from Blanche. Instead, it comes from men--which is, though unfortunate, not surprising, and definitely historically accurate. There are actually a lot of unfortunate but historically accurate aspects of this book. Examples: how unwanted children are treated, how illness is treated, how women who wanted any form of independence are treated... The list goes on and on.
As far as quality goes, I liked this, but I didn't love it. I probably wouldn't re-read it. I found the timelines hard to follow for much of the book (the fact that Donoghue has to blatantly say which day it is from time to time indicates that it's hard to follow to being with) and while the setting and murder plots were interesting (Who is the murderer? WHO?) but I didn't find Blanche's search for P'tit to be that thrilling. Her sudden change of heart regarding him seems to have been rather sketchy, as is pointed out by several characters in the book, and I'm not sure I fully believed it. I think Donoghue did a great job of researching the time, place, and plot (the book is based off a real unsolved murder) but that all the strands weren't necessarily as well-woven as they could have been. I also couldn't have cared less about the musical aspects of the plot. While I know that the songs were supposed to be significant to the parts of the plot that they appeared in (and I can see how they tied in) I just didn't care about them. They lent flavor to the setting, sure, but they just weren't up my alley.
I also found Jenny to be annoying, which meant I really didn't care about her death in the first place. Oooops.
3.5 stars out of 5, for the solid setting and language (which was quite lovely) and Blanche.