What it’s about: In 1876 San Francisco, a heat wave and a smallpox epidemic means tempers are frayed. Jenny Bonnet, a frog hunter notorious for wearing men’s clothing, collides on her high-rider bicycle with Blanche Beunon, a dancer in a strip club and a prostitute. This chance encounter sparks an unlikely friendship that is cut short a month later, when Jenny is gunned down in front of Blanche. Now Blanche is destitute and scrambling to find her baby while trying to figure out who killed Jenny.
Why I liked it: This is an immersive novel for those readers who enjoy plunging into a different time and place. Donoghue brings San Francisco to life with a wealth of details about everyday life in this chaotic city. Her characters are real historical figures, and this is a real unsolved mystery; Donoghue’s solution may be somewhat convoluted, but it does work.
Some nitpicks: The protagonist, Blanche, is a difficult person to sympathize with, a mother who first abandons her baby and then can’t live without him, a prostitute who lets herself be taken advantage of by her kept man and his best friend. Jenny is a much more engaging character, but unfortunately is not in the book much, since her murder is the central point of the plot. Donoghue switches back and forth between the time leading up to the murder and the time after it, which can be awkward and confusing, and her strange choice of present tense doesn’t help (a book set in the past should use past tense, in my opinion). Overall, though, this is an engaging read, showcasing Donoghue’s clear talent for historical research.
You might like it if: you like historical fiction with a gritty edge, such as The Sisters Brothers.