Summer of 1876: San Francisco is in the fierce grip of a record-breaking heat wave and a smallpox epidemic. Through the window of a railroad saloon, a young woman named Jenny Bonnet is shot dead. The survivor, her friend Blanche Beunon, is a French burlesque dancer. Over the next three days, she will risk everything to bring Jenny's murderer to justice - if he doesn't track her down first. The story Blanche struggles to piece together is one of free-love bohemians, desperate paupers, and arrogant millionaires; of jealous men, icy women, and damaged children. It's the secret life of Jenny herself, a notorious character who breaks the law every morning by getting dressed: a charmer as slippery as the frogs she hunts. In thrilling, cinematic style, Frog Music digs up a long-forgotten, never-solved crime. Full of songs that migrated across the world, Emma Donoghue's lyrical tale of love and bloodshed among lowlifes captures the pulse of a boomtown like no other.
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I am a fan of both Ms. Donoghue and Ms. Hvam, so imagine my happiness when they collaborate to entertain me. This book was engaging and interesting. I did find it a bit confusing because the author kept going back and forth between time periods, but that seems to be a writing technique that is very popular now. The storyline, set in San Francisco in the late 19th century was fascinating and I learned a few things I had never heard about ie: baby farms and cross dressing as a crime. The characters were not particularly likeable, except for Jennie, but I did feel that the author delved into what made them the people they were. I enjoy historically based novels because in an entertaining way they bring up facts I wasnt aware of, that I can later research. Ms.Hvams narration was excellent as always, she is able to conjure up many different accents realistically and move between them flawlessly! Despite this not being a perfect novel, I think it's entertaining and worth your time and credit.
I found out after finishing this book, as I listened to a short NPR interview with Emma Donoghue, that she'd based her latest story on a true crime that took place in California in 1876: "On the very outskirts of San Francisco, in a grimy bar, a lot of bullets came through a window and they killed one woman in the room, Jenny Bonnet, who was a professional frog catcher. And they left the other woman, Blanche Beunon, a burlesque dancer, unharmed", she told the interviewer. Basing herself on numerous court transcripts and newspaper articles, she found material which was too good to make up; the city was in the middle of a major heatwave and a devastating smallpox epidemic; the victim Jenny Bonnet was a professional frog-catcher who sold her goods to local restaurants and liked to wear men's clothes, which was a punishable offence in the city of San Francisco and landed her in jail numerous times. The other woman, Blanche Beunon was a French immigrant who made her living as a burlesque dancer and prostitute. These two women, along with the city of San Francisco itself, a ramshackle place quickly thrown together by "miners, restaurateurs and prostitutes" are Donoghue's main characters, from which she fleshed out her story, creating plausible lives for the two women and imagining how the two might have crossed paths and come to be in that room together on the fatal night.
The main character is Blanche, who at first is content with her life, making men drool and throw money at her feet with her naughty stage acts and 'michetons', the rich customers she charges healthy fees for sexual favours. But when Jenny Bonnet literally slams into her with her outlandish machine, in the form of a large front-wheel bicycle, and the two unconventional women start developing a friendship, questions raised by Jenny force Blanche to look at her life from a new perspective. Donoghue, while not condoning or condemning prositution, raises question about how it affects women's lives in the larger picture. In this case, Blanche has had a baby by her French boyfriend, who abhors the 'Bourgeois' but has no qualms comfortably living off her earnings, and who had arranged for the newborn to be farmed out to "Angel Makers", a form of childcare for desperate parents known as such because the children likely to die from neglect. Up until her encounter with Jenny, Blanche had conveniently put the whole matter out of her mind and never visited the place where her child was kept, imagining, as she was led to believe, that the child lived in the fresh air of a country farm, away from city pollution and dirt. But from the sudden shocking awareness of what Petit's living conditions have actually been for the first year of his life, a mother's love will force her to make difficult choices which will have repercussions on many lives.
I read Donoghue's Slammerkin many years ago, and must say I haven't had the courage to broach Room yet, but in this new novel, she returns in good form to one of my favourite genres and delivers a historical novel that crackles with life and realistic details and characters, and makes for a really great yarn from beginning to end, for what is a basically an unputdownable read.
I've listened to Khristine Hvam narrate other books before and while she is a good narrator, my beef with her is that she seems to have just one cookie-cutter foreign accent which I've heard her use for both Czech and French accents most unconvincingly. Of course, in my case, being a fluent French speaker, a bad French accent is bound to grate on the ears, and in this case, since the main protagonist is French, there is a lot of grating to be endured, but to Hvam's credit, the delivery was good enough for this to be a minor quibble and didn't take away from my overall enjoyment of this audiobook. Definitely recommended.