by Emma Donoghue
This highly anticipated novel from the author of Room takes readers into the sordid world of San Francisco in 1876. Using the known facts of an unsolved murder, Donoghue weaves the intricate story of Blanche Beunon, a former circus performer turned burlesque dancer with a bit of prostitution on the side.
Blanche is suffering through a harsh heat wave and a smallpox epidemic when she meets the feisty Jenny Bonnet, who we learn in the first chapter is murdered. Before meeting Jenny, Blanche’s life consists of an unhealthy relationship with Arthur, a brute who is hard to stomach and a constant string of “jobs” with random men. The constant shifts in the time in the narrative were hard to follow. In one moments we’re in the hours following Jenny’s death and a second later we’re month or years in the past.
I found the historical aspects of the book fascinating. Learning about the smallpox epidemic, burlesques, Chinese neighborhoods, and French circus was so interesting. It was the fictional elements of the book that fell flat at times for me. Blanche became an exhausting character to read about. She seemed to constantly put herself in bad situations or be surprised when awful people betrayed her. Jenny is the heart and soul of the book and I wish she had played a bigger part in the action. Her fiery demeanor and lust for life infected everyone around her.
I was incredibly disappointed when Blanche and Jenny slept together. I understand that it was important to the plot, but it was such a letdown. Blanche sleeps with everyone, from Arthur to his friend Ernest to her clients; she uses her body to make money. But Jenny was the person that was a true friend to her. She wasn’t scared to give her an objective point about her life and she was there for Blanche in a way to no one else was. I was frustrated that they slept together because to me it cheapened their relationship. I felt like there was more depth to their friendship when sex was not on the table because sex was so common and cheap in Blanche’s world.
BOTTOM LINE: Interesting, well writing and great on audio, but I tired of hearing about Blanche’s troubles and I wished we heard more from Jenny.