Frog Music: Singing the San Francisco Blues

Emma Donoghue's Frog Music

Juliet’s father in “Romeo and Juliet” tends to get off easy. Audiences feel bad for both sets of parents, Capulet and Montague, at the end of the play, because both are bereaved; but that doesn’t mean their grief is created equal. It’s daddy Capulet who tells his daughter, “And you be mine, I give you to my friend; and you be none, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets, for, by my soul, I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee.” Pretty harsh stuff from a paterfamilias. It is his rage that makes Juliet desperate enough to put the events of the last act in motion. While Romeo blames the stars, one could also make a case for blaming the patriarchy.

There’s a scene in Emma Donoghue’s atmospheric novel Frog Music, set in San Francisco in the sweltering summer of 1876, where someone curses our protagonist, Blanche, a burlesque dancer and high-class call girl, in a similar way, and with similarly tragic consequences. Arthur is Blanche’s lover and the father of her child; she’s devoted to him, happy to support both Arthur and his best friend, Ernest, with her own earnings and ask nothing in return. But when Blanche meets the cross-dressing free spirit Jenny Bonnet on the street one night, Arthur’s hold on Blanche is challenged, and his inner Capulet comes out.

Because the story moves backward and forward in time, the reader learns early that idiosyncratic Jenny is killed by a shotgun blast through a window. Only much later are the murderer and motive revealed. The real plot involves watching Blanche lose everything—her only friend, her lover, her status as a property owner, her career, her money, her husband, her child—as she tries to discover the truth. Blanche is no DuBois; she is, after all, a woman of the world practiced in taking care of herself. But neither is she Miss Marple.

At times a reader might yearn to follow a real detective, since, like your average rookie cop, Blanche makes plenty of mistakes, some of them deadly. With her questionable taste in and thirst for men, she’s part Sheila, the unapologetically carnal narrator of How Should A Person Be?. She’s also part Scarlett O’Hara, struggling in a male-dominated society to make the best of one awful situation after another, and earning the sometimes grudging admiration of readers and characters alike.

One also longs to spend more time with the fascinating Jenny, whose complicated past emerges in flashes over the second half of the book and who feels like a character out of Sarah Waters. Women and children, gender nonconformists, and urban immigrants in the pre-Progressive Era had few of the rights (or access to smallpox vaccines) we tend to take for granted today. Donoghue, who so ably captures the inner life of a precocious five-year-old boy in her breakthrough Room, is at her best in Frog Music when evoking the plight of the powerless, the trapped, and those using whatever tools are at their disposal just to survive.