Frog Music Review
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More than a century ago, a young woman was murdered at a boarding house outside San Francisco. If the crime had happened today, this unsolved case would have been the subject of news reports and crime shows and maybe a made-for-TV movie. Instead, it’s the subject of Frog Music, a haunting historical novel by author Emma Donoghue.

Frog Music travels back to San Francisco during the sweltering summer of 1876. As temperatures rise and the city’s residents are ravaged by smallpox, a beautiful French burlesque dancer named Blanche begins an unlikely friendship that will change her life forever.

Jenny is an eccentric young woman with a mysterious past. She’s brusque and outspoken, and she dresses in men’s clothes. Blanche finds her brutal honesty both troubling and refreshing—and it causes her to take an honest look at her own life. So when she witnesses Jenny’s mysterious murder just a few short weeks later, she decides to find her friend’s killer.

Based on a real unsolved case, this absorbing literary whodunit weaves music, history, and murder together while offering a glimpse of the seedier side of life in 1870s California. This isn’t a lively Western—nor is it a refined historical account of the prim and proper world back East. Blanche’s world is raw and wild, filled with downtrodden prospectors, disgruntled immigrants, and a wide variety of other unmentionables. For that reason, it’s often a dark and dreary tale of tragedy and revenge, of illness and neglect. While it can, at times, be a challenge to wade through the grimmer, more graphic parts of the story, the uncommon characters make it worth the effort.

The protagonist is well-meaning but flawed, a French circus performer who followed the man she loves to America, where she’s chosen to use her talents in a different way, performing on the stage and in private rooms for men who pay handsomely. For Blanche, it’s just a way of life—and she fully embraces it, no matter what common people may think of her. But Jenny makes Blanche begin to question her choices—especially as they relate to the infant son whom she sees only once a month.

Jenny’s world, meanwhile, is more of a mystery. The story merely hints at her past—at a troubled childhood, ill-fated relationships, and other experiences that may or may not have been real. Jenny rarely opens up about herself—and as Blanche begins to realize that she never really knew her friend, readers may also be frustrated by the lack of development. Still, those hazy details are what kept Jenny’s murder a mystery—and they also give the story its intriguing ambiguity.

Frog Music isn’t the kind of light mystery that you’d pack for a relaxing day at the beach. It’s also not a straight-laced historical drama. But if you’re looking for something outside the ordinary, this layered tale of friendship and murder in shady old San Francisco makes a bleak but beguiling journey back in time.

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