'Frog Music' has the makings of another best-seller for 'Room' author Emma Donoghue

San Francisco ChronicleApril 3, 2014 

  • BOOK REVIEW

    'Frog Music'

    By Emma Donoghue

    Little, Brown. 405 pp. $27.

Emma Donoghue is some kind of chameleon. How else could she move so effortlessly from the somber, dark-at-the-heart drama of her best-selling Room to the ebullient mystery of her latest, a historical crime novel set in 1870s San Francisco that features a frog-catching cross-dresser, a once-great trapeze artist, a burlesque dancer turned reluctant mom and even its own soundtrack?

Based on a real-life unsolved crime, Frog Music begins with the murder of Jenny Bonnet, a 27-year-old gun-slinging, pants-wearing provocateur.

Jenny is in a boardinghouse with her best friend, Blanche Beunon, a Parisian burlesque dancer at the notorious House of Mirrors. But when the weary Blanche bends over to take off her dusty boots, a bullet zings through the window and fells Jenny. Blanche is queasily sure she knows who the killer is: her longtime lover Arthur, a trapeze artist-turned-gambler who has vanished, along with their baby, P'tit.

But was the bullet meant for Jenny or was Blanche the target? And if she was, how can she find Arthur (and save her child) before he comes after her again?

With show-stopping aplomb, Donoghue cross-cuts between Blanche's desperate search and scenes from her Technicolor past. We meet Blanche in her early circus days in Europe, when she has her first thrilling encounter with Alfred, before he "let the devil seep out."

They come to America to make it big, along with Arthur's best friend and onetime trapeze catcher, Ernest. But Ernest hates and resents Blanche because he thinks she's holding Arthur down; in time, Arthur begins to loathe and mistreat her, too, but he can't leave because he need the money she makes as a dancer.

When Blanche gets pregnant, Arthur is in no mood for paternal tenderness. He sends the child to one a baby farm in the city, where little ones are sometimes tied to beds, left to languish and even die. Blanche is living a sad, sorry life, but it's all she knows, until she meets Jenny.

Jenny is the flint to the fire that needs to be set under Blanche. Jenny does as she pleases, always speaks her mind, and her cockiness begins to rub off on Blanche. Jenny encourages Blanche to get her child back, even as Blanche recoils from the rickets-ridden baby's scaly, misshapen body. Jenny's devoted attention to the "saddest, ugliest baby in the world" rouses maternal feelings in Blanche.

Arthur isn't happy about the baby being back, and when Jenny encourages Blanche to leave and take her money-making skills with her, Arthur and Ernest are livid. But are they mad enough to kill? And if they didn't, who did?

It's all great fun, and so richly atmospheric, you can hear the sizzling noodles in Chinatown, feel the stickily oppressive heat wave and tremble over those dying in droves from smallpox. Astonishing details are scattered like party nuts: red dots on the soles of feet mean smallpox. Frogs can jump 20 times their length. Lake ice is preferable to factory made. Donoghue also provides riotous musical accompaniment for her narrative, including songs of the times that are funny, ribald and profane.

But as hilarious as the book is, there's also a moral code, and Jenny is its triumphant voice. As we learn more about her secret past, she becomes even more richly sympathetic.

Call it a mind-bendingly original crime novel or a dazzling historical mystery, but in the end, Frog Music is a really a book about love — a mother's love for a strange child, for an exotic friend and finally, for herself.

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