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Tue April 1, 2014
Book Reviews

'Frog Music' Sounds A Barbaric (But Invigorating) Yawp

Originally published on Mon April 14, 2014 6:42 pm

San Francisco in the summer of the 1876, between the Gold Rush and the smallpox epidemic, is the setting for Emma Donoghue's boisterous new novel, Frog Music.

There's real frog music in these pages, the riveting cries of the creatures hunted by Jenny Bonnet, one of the two main characters. She's a pistol-packing, pants-wearing gal in a town where pants on women are one of the few cardinal sins, and she scratches out a living catching frogs and selling them to local restaurants.

As the book opens, Jenny comes rolling along a busy San Francisco street on a stolen bicycle. "Drinkers shuffle arm in arm from bar to bar, bawling dirty choruses; knots of men head for the bordels on Commercial or Pacific ... Smallpox be damned: nobody's staying in tonight." She accidentally knocks down a French danseuse (famous for her "leg dance" on local stages) named Blanche Beunon, not yet in her mid-twenties, and the mother of an undernourished waif. Some bumpy "meet cute," as they say in the movies.

So now here's Blanche, also picking herself up off the street. She supplies the other frog music in the novel, the charming songs she sings while putting on her erotic shows, mostly at Madame Johanna's House of Mirrors. Blanche has cobbled together her earnings from the dance hall and prostitution so she can buy a small building in Chinatown. Here she supports her former circus aerialist consort Arthur and his acrobat pal Ernest — and now and then gives them both sexual succor in boldly described early morning acrobatics.

Jenny, poor fabulous Jenny — a former prostitute herself — has little except for her bicycle, sleeping where she can, including the streets where a smallpox epidemic rages. And it's not a spoiler to say that before the first chapter ends, she's dead from buckshot, fired by an unknown killer through the blinds of the flophouse room she's sharing with Blanche.

The novel itself shows a lot of leg, dancing back and forth between the few days before the murder (in which we get to see the growing friendship between the two women) and the days after (in which Blanche tries to figure out the mystery of her dear new friend's death). This sets a jaunty pace, and emerging from it is a portrait quite compelling of two strong, if eccentric, women and the city they live in: raucous, violent, charming, filthy, plague-ridden San Francisco. And what turns out to be a portrait — complete with explicit scenes of intense fornication and blazing fisticuffs — of their brief affair.

Though Donoghue poses the book as a mystery — who killed Jenny Bonnet? — it's equally a celebration of love despite hardships galore, and the rising call of motherhood against near impossible odds. With, I should add, a soundtrack on the page of vintage music hall songs, some of which are the raunchiest you'll ever hear. Cock your head! Listen! Ah! Frog music!

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. San Francisco is hot and riddled with smallpox. At least that was the case in the summer of 1876, and that's the setting of Emma Donoghue's new novel. It's called "Frog Music." Here's our reviewer, Alan Cheuse.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: Don't let the odd title put you off. There's real frog music in these pages, the riveting cries of the creatures caught and sold to San Francisco restaurants by Jenny Bonnet, one of the two main characters. Jenny's a pistol-packing, Northern California woman in her late 20s and she wears pants around town and act quite against the law in San Francisco.

In the opening chapters, she comes rolling along a busy street on a stolen bicycle and knocks down French dancer famous for her leg dance on local stages, Blanche Beunon, not yet in her mid-20s, and the young mother of an undernourished infant. Blanche supplies another variety of frog music, the charming songs she sings while putting on erotic shows.

She's cobbled together her earnings from the dance hall and occasional prostitution to buy a small building in Chinatown. There she supports her former circus aerialist consort and his acrobat pal. Before the first chapter ends, Jenny's dead from buckshot wounds. Blanche is stricken and the time of the rest of the novel dances back and forth between the few days before the murder and the days after.

This sets a merry pace and emerging from it is a portrait quite compelling of two strong late 19th century women and the city they live in - raucous, violent, charming, filthy, plague-ridden San Francisco and a portrait of their brief and intense affair. Though Donoghue poses the book as a mystery, who killed Jenny Bonnet, it's as much a celebration of love despite hardships galore, and the rising call of motherhood against near impossible odds, a jaunty historical novel about crime and love and, I should add, with the soundtrack on the page of vintage dance hall songs, some of which are the raunchiest you'll ever hear.

Cock your head. Listen. Ah. Frog music.

CORNISH: That's the title of the new book by Emma Donoghue. It was reviewed for us by Alan Cheuse. His most recent book is called "An Authentic Captain Marvel Ring and Other Stories." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.