Donoghue sets her novel in 1876 San Francisco, a critical backdrop to the rise of a multicultural colonial period. In the city, smallpox is rife. Blanche Beunon, a dancing girl and occasional prostitute, lives in Chinatown and performs nightly at the House of Mirrors, owned by the mercenary Madame Johanna Werner who gives her a sober nod of approval every time she leaches over the customers. But what seems like a simple accounting of a girl trying to earn her keep in a world of pestilence, a girl without close relatives, is really about how Blanche is forced to depend upon her husband, Arthur Deneve, himself a circus performer from France. Blanche contains as well a sense of the difficult lives shared by females in a world governed by men.
To her apparent benefit, Blanche tries to keep it all outside the walls of her mind as smallpox gradually invades and the air from the hottest summer on record becomes a stinking miasma that encompasses every single San Franciscan. Heading home to number 515 with its view of Sacramento Street, where the bare windows and the motley furnishings are the only semblance of a home, Blanche hopes to have drink with Arthur and tell him of the “michetons”—the men who lay their wages and run their schemes.
But life changes for Blanche when she’s run down by infamous Jenny Bonnet on her giant high-wheeler bike. Looking like a vagrant just out of the lockup, and an admitted thief (“a Harlequin in a pantomime”), Jenny seduces Blanche on Kearny Street. Here in every storefront burners reflect the light of oil lamps. Drinkers shuffle, bawling their dirty choruses in a “river of faces, festively red-eyed.” The two women hit it off at once, Blanche entranced by the younger girl’s honesty and eccentricity. She decides to invite home this collector of frogs with “a taste for making a spook of herself in pants.” But Jenny’s presence makes an awkward addition to a family comprised of Arthur and his best friend, Earnest, a would-be confidence-trickster who comes to disapprove of the unconventional Jenny, this odd kind of woman, “part boy, part clown, part animal,” who is accountable to no one and bound by no ties.
The unending August heat, the collision with Jenny’s bicycle, the strong wine, and the loss of her son P’tit increase Blanche’s anxiety, a woman ill-prepared for the rigors of domesticity. She knows that P’tit was left with sinister Ernest who colluded with Madame Joanna to hide him in a home for abandoned babies. This episode adds to the tiny seedling of resentment Ernest has been nursing from the moment he laid eyes on Blanche back in France. But Blanche trusted Johanna and had made arrangements to relieve her burden so that she could continue to work more and more profitably and live as freely as before.
Given Blanche’s vulnerability, it isn’t surprising that she’s drawn into complicity with Jenny. The two end up at San Miguel Station in the Eight Mile House Saloon of John and Ellen McNamara. As a cold-blooded murderer strikes, Jenny’s dangerous connections become the central focus of Blanche’s life, not to mention Ernest and Arthur’s watchful eyes. Plunged into an investigation into her friend’s death, Blanche wonders whether Arthur is really a vengeful beast in an urbane and elegant coat—and is Ernest perhaps Arthur’s hired henchman, determined to shoot Jenny and Blanche at whatever cost?
I really enjoyed aspects of this book, particularly Donoghue’s portrayal of the ribald social history of the period, most symbolized by Blanche’s deliciously decadent lifestyle. Utilizing style and verbiage perfectly suited to the story and time, Donoghue unfurls all the lies, half-lies, evasions and pontifications. Blanche’s bedrock life suddenly cracks open, as does Jenny’s mysterious past, in a story that proves to be “as slippery as pond-weed.” Bolted into the tiny lavatory of the train from San Miguel Station, the hot summer sun hammers down on her as Blanche makes the decision to find Jenny’s killer and bring him to justice.
As an historical drama, Frog Music is often engrossing, but there’s just too much going on to make this a really great read: the smallpox plague, the incessant heat, Jenny’s murder, the court-case that follows, P’tit‘s disappearance, and the evil machinations of Madame Joanna, Ernest, and perhaps even Arthur. We know that Blanche will probably survive it all even when the young dancer is set loose in San Miguel Station, husbandless and adrift, without her best friend or her child to guide her. She is dictated by her fears, yet these fears run counter to her need to remain in Arthur’s good books—at least for now.
Overlong by about a hundred pages, some judicious editing could have made this book a much better read. Donoghue tries hard to shape a story full of awkward transitions involving the horrific events at San Miguel and Blanche’s search for P’tit in San Francisco. But these two threads feel shoehorned together and structurally awkward, even when Blanche manages to rise above the novel‘s faults, finding a solace of sorts with Jenny and comfort in her efforts to make a new life for herself with little baby P’tit at her side.