In the sweltering fall of 1876, a San Francisco prostitute tracks a killer and searches for her stolen baby.
Donoghue returns here to the historical fiction genre in which she first made her international mark (Slammerkin, 2000, etc.), but she’s blended in the suspense craft she acquired writing her contemporary mega-seller Room (2010). Who fired the shotgun blasts that blew away Jenny Bonnet while her friend Blanche bent down to take off her boots? Blanche believes it was her lover Arthur or his sidekick, Ernest, who have been living on her earnings as a high-priced erotic dancer/whore. They weren’t happy when Jenny goaded Blanche into retrieving her 1-year-old son, P’tit, from the ghastly holding pen for unwanted children where Arthur dumped him while Blanche was ill. And Jenny is killed while Blanche is hiding out in the countryside with her after an ugly scene with Arthur and Ernest that led Blanche to flee their apartment without P’tit. The men blame Jenny for Blanche’s newfound, unwelcome independence, but there are plenty of other people in San Francisco who dislike the defiant, cross-dressing frog-catcher, who presents herself as an untamed free spirit. There’s far more to Jenny’s story, we learn, as Donoghue cuts between Blanche’s hunt for her son in mid-September and the events of August, when her collision with bicycle-riding Jenny led to their unlikely friendship. By the time the murderer is revealed, we understand why Jenny knows so much about abandoned children, and we’ve seen how Blanche has been changed by her hesitant commitment to motherhood. (Some of the book’s funniest, most touching moments depict her early struggles to care for “this terrible visitor,” her baby.) Donoghue’s vivid rendering of Gilded Age San Francisco is notable for her atmospheric use of popular songs and slang in Blanche’s native French, but the book’s emotional punch comes from its portrait of a woman growing into self-respect as she takes responsibility for the infant life she’s created.
More fine work from one of popular fiction’s most talented practitioners.