The basics: Set in the summer of 1876 in San Francisco in the midst of the smallpox epidemic, Frog Music is the story of the murder of Jenny Bonnet, a cross-dressing young woman who dies in the novel's first pages. Her new friend Blanche Beunon, a French burlesque dancer and prostitute, tells the story. The action shifts between the days after Jenny's murder and a month earlier, when Jenny and Blanche meet.
My thoughts: Although Frog Music is the story of an unsolved murder, I'd classify it more as historical fiction than historical mystery. The mystery itself is compelling, particularly as the novel climaxes, but it's not what I loved most about this novel. As I read, I was immediately immersed in San Francisco in the summer of 1876. Donoghue strikes the perfect balance between vivid historical detail and a fast-moving plot. Blanche is a beguiling, fascinating character, and I enjoyed every moment of her story.
I read this novel compulsively. I was curious to see how the mystery unfolded, but I was equally intrigued with many of the novels smaller mysteries. In this sense, the two timelines (albeit only a month apart at their longest) were smart storytelling. Because so much was different at the two times, I never found myself confused. Instead I marveled at how many key events impacted the lives of these characters.
At the novel's end is a lengthy author's note on the real people Donoghue brings to life in Frog Music. Her research was impressive, but this piece of historical fiction clearly takes the real events, still shrouded in mystery, and uses them for inspiration. Donoghue's fictional tale may well be true, but it's a gift of this particular real-life mystery that is the greatest gift: because there are no known answers, the fictional possibilities are even more enchanting.
The verdict: Frog Music is an utterly immersive piece of historical fiction. It's based on true events and impeccably researched, but it's magic and charm lie in Donoghue's characters and setting.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 412 pages
Publication date: April 1, 2014
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