I really liked this book and had absolutely no idea that it was based on real-life people, until I got to the author’s notes at the back! I had a feeling this novel would be up my alley because it has a historical setting, which involves murder and brothels to boot! Not that I am a particular fan of those two topics but put together, Donoghue does a great job creating an atmosphere—bringing you to the San Francisco of 1876.
It is sweltering hot and a smallpox epidemic has spread, causing residents to put up yellow flags outside their buildings and creating an animosity between the Americans and Chinese immigrants. Among this chaos, Parisian burlesque dancer and prostitute, Blanche Beunon, must find out who killed her only friend (Jenny Bonnet). Although their acquaintance is brief, Blanche feels drawn to Jenny’s outlandish ways, which include being dressed like a man and catching frogs for a living. Blanche’s beau, Arthur and his sidekick Ernest, show signs of jealousy and give her the impression that they may have had something to do with the murder. Added to these triangles, Blanche also discovers that the one-year-old son she had with Arthur was kept at a baby farm, under terrible conditions. The personalities come out very strong in each of these characters—I almost don’t know who I like the best! Even with the difficulties Blanche goes through to stay alive, reunite with her son and find the killer, there are funny moments that she reflects on.
The story goes back and forth between the present situation Blanche is facing and all the events that lead up to this moment. I especially love how she tries to embrace motherhood with her awkward child, who has rarely seen her face for the better part of a year.
As expected, there are a few sexually explicit scenes in the story, all involving Blanche—if you are not ready to take the nitty-gritty of it, skip over those parts. If you have read Fifty Shades, then this is nothing for you. It just goes to show that throughout the history of civilization there were always vulgar ways to enjoy sex and the men who attended these shows were no different from the ones who go to strip clubs today.
I also enjoyed how women’s societal roles are brought to the forefront, showing us what was considered acceptable at that time. Issues of women’s rights and freedoms, their status and sexual urges are all explored. There are no two better characters to prove society wrong than Blanche and Jenny.
What did you think of the book? Did the fact that these people actually existed bring any fascination to the novel or an element of surprise?
If you are a member of the library, we have this title currently in Hard copy, Large Print and as an audiobook. This may or may not change in the future. Please check the catalogue frequently for an update of formats.
If you enjoyed this novel, you may have already read her other books but in case you have not, here are other stuff she has written:
To read reviews on Frog Music, please click on the links below.
From The Washington Post
From The Guardian
For information about Emma Donoghue, click here.
The following questions are to help you talk about the story:
-Discuss the title. How do frogs relate to the story?
-What taboos does Emma Donoghue address during Frog Music? Do any of them still exist today?
For more questions to explore, please access them here.
So, we all know by now that these characters really lived and I found an obituary of “Jennie Bonnet” but the page only loaded once, so I didn’t want to link to something that couldn’t be read. I also couldn’t find any information about women being banned from entering bars in the evening. Instead, I found an intriguing article that explains more inspiration and research from Emma Donoghue, which was featured in the New Yorker on April 9th, 2014. Read it here.
This book reminded me of …
Four books that I had previously read came to my mind while reading this. It’s been a while but scenes from Sheri Holman’s The Dress Lodger sprang up when the same time period and prostitution is mentioned. The prostitute also has a baby that doesn’t seem like other children and similarly, there is the presence of an old scary woman. In The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay it also takes place in historical America (except in New York) and also deals with prostitution. It even discusses the very young age of prostitutes that men are willing to pay higher amounts for. One of my all time favorite historical novels is Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. When Blanche is offered to be taken care of by an admirer, it brought back memories of Sugar becoming the sole prostitute of a wealthy man and there are also quite a few sexually explicit moments in the novel (same tone as Frog Music). Finally, Matadora by Elizabeth Ruth showcases the whole issue of testing women’s gender roles and lesbianism.
Favorite quote from book:
“But one of the many things about babies that nobody told her is that every incremental advance makes them harder to handle … before she can get away, P’tit is clawing himself to his feet again, heaving himself up on her brown polka-dot skirt like a sailor climbing rigging. Or no, like Quasimodo straining at the ropes of the great bells …” (p. 195)
Most unexpected moment in the story:
When we realize John Jr.’s admiration of Blanche goes farther than just a young boy’s crush. (p. 351-353)