BY GARTH GREENWELL
On September 14, 1876, as San Francisco suffered under the twin plagues of record-breaking heat and an epidemic of smallpox, a young woman was shot dead through the window of a rented room at a railway station just outside of the city. Her name was Jenny Bonnet, well-known to the police for the crime of wearing men’s clothes, a predilection for which she was arrested numerous times. With her was a 24-year-old French burlesque performer and prostitute, Blanche Beunon.
Emma Donohue’s new novel, her first since her international bestseller, Room, takes these facts as the basis for an historical fiction that is less a mystery—Blanche is convinced through most of the book that she knows who killed her friend—than a portrait of these two characters and, even more successfully, of the time and city in which they live.
Jenny Bonnet is a wonderful creation, seemingly determined to live life on her own terms, with a recklessness that looks very much like freedom. “Jenny’s an odd kind of woman,” Blanche thinks, “part boy, part clown, part animal. An original, accountable to no one, bound by no ties, who cocks her hat as she pleases….” In her self-reliance and refusal to be bound, as well as in her flashes of compassion, she could almost be a fully grown, female Huckleberry Finn.
Blanche, Donohue’s protagonist and our guide through the world of the book, is somewhat less easy to love. She’s famous for her shows at the House of Mirrors, the bordello where she’s known as “The Lively Flea” for a particularly popular routine, and she’s wonderfully unapologetic for her appetite for sex: even if her partner is a paying client, “Men are tools Blanche uses for her satisfaction.” She lives with her lover and pimp, Arthur Deneve, a man whose apparent charm gives way, over the course of the book, to shocking brutality.
Blanche is also a mother, though not a particularly good one. She and Arthur have arranged for their child’s care at what they believe to be a farm outside the city, where the country air will be good for his health; instead, as Blanche discovers to her horror, he has been kept in a terrible, dank home for unwanted children. Blanche’s desire to find her child, and guilt over what she has done—she knows that she was relieved to be free of the burden of an infant, and that she was blithely unconcerned about his fate—are the primary motivations for her actions after Jenny’s death.
Killing off your most appealing character is a remarkable risk for a novelist. But Jenny doesn’t disappear from the book after her murder; instead, the book adopts an odd, occasionally cumbersome strategy, dividing into two interwoven strands. The first follows Blanche through the days immediately following the shooting; the second tells the story of her friendship with Jenny, beginning a month before the opening scene and moving toward what we know to be the friendship’s inevitable end.
The novel becomes enormously poignant as it nears its end, when we see the friendship between Blanche and Jenny blossoming in unexpected ways even as we know Jenny’s death is nearing. And Blanche becomes an ever-more appealing character as we see how she has been changed by that friendship, moving toward a future more open to possibility because of the ways in which Jenny challenged Blanche’s assumptions about her own life. Though Blanche claims to have no talent for friendship, she comes to realize that Jenny “is the friend Blanche has been waiting a quarter of a century for without even knowing it.”
For all its human drama, the real protagonist of Frog Music is the city that enlivens every page. Donoghue’s San Francisco of the 1870s is a rich, vibrant, unpredictable place, equal parts Wild West and cosmopolitan city, full of casinos and saloons and immigrants of all kinds, many of them transient. “As if the City’s just a mouth, swallowing them whole,” Jenny observes, “and the rest of America’s the belly where they end up.” It’s also a place of music, and the book is full of songs, many of them from Blanche’s native France—one meaning of Donoghue’s title—but others distinctly American, whether the minstrel songs of Stephen Foster or Black spirituals.
Donoghue’s San Francisco is finally a frontier town, a place where boundaries are at once starkly drawn and constantly shifting: lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, all are fiercely asserted and yet repeatedly crossed. As we learn more about her past in the book’s final chapters, it’s clear that in Jenny Bonnet, Donoghue has created a thoroughly human embodiment of our impulse to cross all lines.
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Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Faber/FSG in May 2015. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.