Irish author Emma Donoghue was two decades and several books into her career at the publication of her breakout novel, Room, whose depiction of a woman and her son in captivity made the author an international bestseller. Donoghue’s newest book, Frog Music, recalls her earlier historical novels underscoring the constricting power of Victorian society, displaying the subtle confinement and rebellion within women’s lives.
Once the most famous professional burlesque dancer in San Francisco, Blanche Beunon is hiding out in a dusty outpost outside of the city when her friend Jenny Bonnet is shot while lying in bed next to her. Believing that the shooter was her ex-husband, Arthur, Blanche pulls the ear of both the local press and the police to get them to prosecute the crime, but Jenny’s ne’er-do-well life and arrest history make her a low priority. Meanwhile, Blanche needs to find out where Arthur and his friend Ernest have taken Blanche’s son, who she is desperate to rescue from the city’s heat wave and smallpox epidemic. Her quest for justice is intercut with scenes from the last month, from the day she met Jenny, and from their flight to San Miguel.
Fairly liberated for her time, Blanche’s might is only as strong as her ability to buy others’ compliance, thanks to the clients she sees in secret after her stage shows, and Frog Music traces her realization of how precarious life is on the fringes of polite society. Yet whether Blanche is naïve or knowing, Donoghue treats this path with respect and precision, as her character vacillates wildly between determined mother and helpless stranger. The idiosyncrasies of her relationship with Jenny, a street-smart drifter who earns the respect Blanche is denied, highlights this careful treatment; Blanche regards Jenny’s outspokenness and habit of wearing men’s pants with confusion but also envy. That Arthur is such a dyed-in-the-wool villain from the beginning, from his gambling problem to his slavish (and suspicious) devotion to Ernest, somewhat undermines that point, but Blanche’s interactions with others, always at the mercy of their disapproval, are the base on which that relationship was built, too.
The rich and rippling fabric of Frog Music’s San Francisco, whose inhabitants barely get along under the best of circumstances, threatens to swallow up Blanche and her search, yet provide a needed counterpoint to her uncertainties. (In a charming afterword, Donoghue alludes to the inaccuracy of newspaper accounts at the time—something Blanche herself endures after Jenny’s death—as an apology for any errors in her research.) Research and invention together mark Frog Music with the ring of truth and salvage a fascinating story from the ether of history.