"I Must Read, Read, and Read. It is my Vocation." - Thomas Merton
This is where I chronicle my reading life. I also blog about writing at Lacey's Late-night Editing.
Historical fiction tends to be a little hit-or-miss with me, and murder is not one of my favorite plot devices. As such, I would not have read this book if a friend had not recommended it -- but I'm glad that I did.
The thing that overcomes my ambivalence about historical fiction and my general disinterest in murder stories is Donoghue's beautifully rendered characters. The cast in this book is small, but each individual is rendered exquisitely -- whether you love them or hate them, you can't deny that these people feel real. I especially appreciated the complexity of Blanche's character, a burlesque dancer/prostitute who eschews both the "prostitute with a heart of gold" stereotype and the "downtrodden" stereotype. She sees her work as a valid means of support and independence, and she loves sex. If this same character were written by a male author, it probably would have triggered my gag reflex as some male fantasy about how much hookers really LOVE having sex with these guys. But because Blanche was written by a woman, her experiences are infused with subtlety and reality -- she likes sex, but also must deal with the inconvenience of avoiding pregnancy and thwart the assumption that she is "always available" based on her line of work. Although her character arc goes through something of a feminist awakening through her short relationship with the cross-dressing Jenny Bonnet, it manages not to be too heavy-handed. (Although there were some moments near the end, when Blanche decides to give up sex for pay in lieu of earning her independence as a dance teacher, when I detected the slightest whiff of authorial "judgment" on her previous life. That, and the sheer amount of punishment she takes, from losing everything she has to narrowly avoiding rape not once but twice, made me a little uncomfortable. Underneath it all, is Donoghue imparting another cautionary tale in which women are "punished" for their sexuality? My mind was somewhat put at ease by the fact that Blanche does get her 'happy ending' of sorts.)
The other thing about historical fiction that is often off-putting to me is that so often it reads as a "greatest hits" summary of all the most notable events of a certain era, resorting to summary often between events and using its characters as mere vehicles through which to zoom in on historical events. Frog Music all takes place within the span of one month, using as its basis an obscure, real-life murder. This allows Donoghue to examine the minutia of the era, from period costume to the sweltering heat to the fear surrounding the smallpox epidemic. She never resorts to overview but instead brings you into the middle of a historical time with exquisite, sometimes painful detail. She does not romanticize the past, and in feeling like you are "there," you will find yourself very happy to be living in the present time, with air conditioning and running water.
Finally, all of this is presented in eloquent, sensuous prose that gets out of its own way as it brings these rich characters and their era to you. Judging by its other reviews, this book is not for everyone -- but for this reader, it was historical fiction of the most satisfying sort.