One of the most noxious of reviewers’ tendencies is the rush to pan the work that follows a great success. Not always, but often.
A Pulitzer, an Oscar, a huge-selling hit: Expect the critical establishment to greet with a chip on its shoulder whatever the artist offers next — with additional points off for attempting to move in a different creative direction.
“Frog Music” is Emma Donoghue’s first novel since she vaulted to a new literary level in 2010 with the rapturously received “Room,” a bruising and seductive study of a young woman’s imprisonment in a tiny room with the son she bore there to her kidnapper.
In “Frog Music,” the author takes us to San Francisco in the summer of 1876. A heat wave has enveloped the burgeoning city, and yellow flags hang from the many houses where the smallpox epidemic has come to roost.
But the principal victim in this novel, based on a historical crime, is Jenny Bonnet, a gregarious, gun-toting brawler who hunts frogs for a living and defies the law by insisting on dressing in men’s clothes. What kills her isn’t smallpox but a shotgun, aimed though a window one night as she lounges in bed.
A close second among the tale’s injured parties is Blanche Beunon, a burlesque dancer, fashionably dressed prostitute, one-time circus rider, and recent immigrant from France. She is also a new friend to Jenny.
By the time free-spirited Jenny makes Blanche’s acquaintance by plowing into her with a bicycle, the dancer has already found financial success in California. At 24, Blanche owns a six-story house in Chinatown, and her earnings support a pair of louche French dandies: her longtime boyfriend Arthur and his best friend Ernest, former trapeze artists who spend their time drinking and gambling.
But after Jenny comes on the scene, asking impertinent questions that threaten the status quo, relations in their bohemian household turn ugly in the extreme. Blanche flees, accidentally leaving behind P’tit, the infant son she and Arthur were never overjoyed to have.
The women are together when the murderer strikes. Blanche quickly becomes convinced that Arthur and Ernest are the culprits and that they meant to kill her, not Jenny. As she tries to convince investigators of the men’s guilt, Blanche fears not only for her own life but also for that of P’tit, whom Arthur and Ernest are hiding from her.
Does that sound convoluted? It is.
Donoghue, who is not new to historical fiction, sank deep into research for “Frog Music.” She doesn’t seem to have clawed her way back out.
As she explains in an author’s note, nearly every one of the many named characters in the book is based on someone real. Donoghue has tracked down minute details of these obscure individuals’ time on earth, and she has learned vast amounts about San Francisco in the late 19th century.
What she hasn’t done is made from all this research a novel that lives and breathes on its own.
With its choppy chronology, “Frog Music” seems partly to be an experiment with form. But it feels simultaneously scattered and overstuffed — including with lyrics to numerous old songs, which don’t make great reading. It’s so repetitive that it appears to be aimed at an audience more distracted and less intelligent than the one that embraced “Room.”
That novel, as entrancing as it is, does have a nagging flaw: It is set in the United States, but the dialogue doesn’t sound American, and the world outside the walls of the room feels vaguely European.
The San Francisco of “Frog Music” looks like America in all its multicultural glory, but again Donoghue stumbles on the voice, which doesn’t feel rooted in time or place or class. “You’re a pernicious troublemaker,” says Blanche, who joined the circus at 15. Whether in English or French, would that phrase be in her vocabulary?
It’s not fair to expect Donoghue to write the same book twice. But she proved in “Room” that she can paint exquisitely on a tiny canvas. That’s something it would be nice to see her do again.
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes @gmail.com.