In the mid 19th century, two women were born, Blanche Beunon and Jenny Bonnett. Both grew up abused by men and the system. Both were obsessed with their own personal sexual needs. Both seemed to be weak victims of circumstances that were almost beyond their control; both were misunderstood and mistreated and both would lie, cheat, and steal when necessary, yet both were very likeable characters which is a tribute to the author’s skill. The women meet quite by accident when Jenny, on a towering bicycle, collides with Blanche, who is on foot. Soon, they become unlikely friends. For Blanche, Jenny is the only friend she has ever really had and her outspokenness alternately unnerves and empowers her.
Blanche was born in France. At the tender age of 15, she meets Arthur Deneve. He is a circus performer, an accomplished acrobat. She becomes his lover and runs away with him to become part of the circus. She learns to ride bareback performing with horses while he performs on the trapeze until a fall injures his back so severely, he is no longer able to perform. Arthur has a protégé, Ernest, an orphan he adopted and trained as his partner. They all leave France for America after he recovers, and there, Ernest has his own paramour, Madeleine. Blanche supports both men with her salacious dancing and behavior as a lady of the night, doing whatever is required of her for paying customers and for both Ernest and Arthur. Truth be told, she enjoys the raunchy life with all of its raw sex, and she relishes the control she feels that she has over men. She believes that men are her tools and she can use them as she will to gain her advantage. Blanche, at 24, is a natural courtesan.
It is the summer of 1876, when she meets Jenny Bonnett, dressed in masculine clothing, possessed of a disarming openness. She impetuously asks blunt questions that are usually asked only by closer friends or relatives. She is lighthearted on the outside and adds humor to the story. She earns her keep by catching and selling frogs to restaurants. You might call her a “frog whisperer” since she believes they can communicate. Jenny never really divulges much information about her own self, even as she questions Blanche and learns the details of her life, although neither woman really completely reveals themselves to the other. Both are habituated to keeping secrets. Blanche is a song and dance performer and Jenny often sings ditties. Music, therefore, often erupts from both of them, and with the excellent reader that is on this audio, the pages often burst into song.
Jenny discovers that Blanche and Arthur Deneve have a child, now a year old. He, Petit Arthur, has supposedly been kept on a farm all these many months. After Blanche gave birth she had milk fever; later on, she had to work, so the baby was cared for elsewhere. Jenny inspires Blanche to find out where her son lodges, since he is always brought to her for visits. When she discovers he is not on a farm but in terrible circumstances where he is neglected and mistreated, she rescues him. He is already malformed and undernourished, not a very handsome, particularly happy or friendly baby.
At this time, in San Francisco, there is a Smallpox epidemic. Arthur contracts the disease and is in serious condition. Blanche, afraid for the baby, and advised by a doctor to stay away from Arthur to protect herself and Petit Arthur, enrages Ernest who sacrifices himself completely to care for Arthur without regard for his own safety. When Arthur recovers, he has turned against Blanche. He is furious that she is not working and supporting them and jealous of the attention she has given to their child. When both men try to force her to engage in vulgar and offensive sexual conduct with a stranger and themselves, she flees, leaving the child behind to save herself. Tragedy, betrayal, theft and murder follow her as she joins her friend Jenny, whom she knows now for about a month, in a remote location where she has gone to unwind, and Blanche has gone to hide.
As the story plays out, it travels back and forth in time, and sometimes the time and place is hazy and unclear until several sentences pass. The language is crude and the sex is explicit. The descriptions and details are often gruesome and graphic. It seems like it was a time of lawlessness and wantonness, disease and despair. Although the novel gets confusing at times, the story, with all its disparate parts, is woven together very neatly in the end, even if not totally satisfactorily. I was happy to read a novel that was original and not a variation on the same theme of many of the books populating the bookshelves in bookstores today, namely stories encompassing dystopian cultures, supernatural beings, excessive violence and bloodshed, sadism, masochism, diabolical schemes, irreverence, and unethical and immoral dysfunctional characters that reside within the pages.
The audiobook did not include the Afterward that is in the printed book, according to what I read online, therefore, the modern day environmental concerns are not elaborated on, like the frog depletion caused by frog catchers and its effect on the ecosystem, or the fact that the tale was based on the true story of an unsolved murder of a woman who did indeed dress as a man and did earn her living catching frogs, and that there really was a child rescued by its mother, and of course, there was no glossary, which wouldn’t have helped in the audio anyway. It would have been helpful, however, if there had been a voice translation, immediately following the foreign expression, for some words were not discernible to my ear although I have a small knowledge of French.