Frog Music, Emma Donoghue, Little Brown, 2014
This novel is built up from an autopsy report following the murder of Jenny Bonnet, who collected frog legs from Lake Merced for the restaurant trade in San Francisco in the mid-1870’s. Donoghue has fictionalized the event and embellished it with local news stories from the period. Jenny was friends with Blanche Beunon, a former Parisian circus trapeze artist who moved to San Francisco after the Paris Commune of 1870 and became a dance artiste and high-class call girl. She had two fancy man boyfriends and produced an unwanted infant, which was placed in a snake pit of a foundling home. Later she repented of allowing this to happen and the latter part of the book tells of her efforts to recover the child.
It’s set in the demi-monde of San Francisco in a time of anti-Chinese riots, a heat wave and a smallpox epidemic, is seasoned with popular songs by Stephen Foster and others, lore about the early bicycle known as high-rider or velocipede, frogs and frog-catching, brothels and steam railroading. It doesn’t measure up to Donoghue’s previous novel “Room,” a relentless and tightly constrained psychological study of a kidnapped mother and child. “Frog Music” wilts chiefly because of its discontinuous narrative line, with the thread of the story broken up in a jerky, time-shifting fashion throughout the book. This device does give a fever dream quality to the smallpox and heat wave sequences, but elsewhere – most of the story – this shattered, disorganized layout is gimmicky and pointless. Stripping away the razzle-dazzle reveals a conventional murder mystery with period details.
The extensive afterword and notes on sources and text are unnecessary and imply a lack of authorial confidence. The overall impression is of a book hurriedly thrown together before it was ready, perhaps by the publisher’s demand for another book before the memory of the brilliant “Room” faded in the public mind.