The first line is already awful before you get to the end of it. No book that starts with such a stiff sentence can be great. Emma Donoghue thinks that telling us the characters are in the front room this early in the book means something. It’s not. It’s just another extra word, like a lot of words in this book. I have written so much about terrible maximalism in novels, it’s getting hypocritical. Yet books like Frog Music keep coming my way.
What happened between this and Room is a more interesting mystery than the one in the book. Room was blessed with flowing, unique writing. The langauge conveyed an atmosphere and the psyche of the character. It’s been too long since I read it, so I cannot remember whether it was more manipulative than deep, but it was a brave experiment that worked. It felt like the logical sequel to claustophobic films like Cube. Frog Music is Emma’s attempt at lifting the thriller genre, but I doubt there are worse mysteries out there.
Room worked because its claustrophobic genre relies on characters to drive the story. Thrillers need good pacing, easy writing and attention-grabbing events. Emma can’t divorce herself from a character-driven story, but she also can’t experiment with the Thriller genre’s main elements. She tries to write a Harlan Coben novel with the style of Ian McEwan. It doesn’t work.
The novel tries really hard to get you inside it. A lot of things are being described, and you’ll always know what the sky’s like or how high the temprature is. Each place gets an epic poem. The story also happens in a big city, so Emma spends a lot of time trying to give us a tour there. It borders on romanticization, but Emma describes plenty of the city’s uglier side.
Emma doesn’t have McEwan’s skill, though. McEwan built long sentences that were easy to read even if they ended up as non-sequieters. The langauge was beautiful, and McEwan was more selective in his descriptions. It felt like he described everything, but he just described a lot. He still had focus. In the hospital scenes, he confined his descriptions to the sick, the wounded and the attempts at treating them. By focusing on this one thing, McEwan makes the reader feel like they’re really there.
Donogue lacks this focus. She just throws any imagery she can think of. Descriptions of how full of life and cool the city is sit next to descriptions of poverty, who sit next to descriptions of the weather. There is no order, or structure to these descriptions. These various categories don’t compliment each othe. They just come from the mindset that thinks you can immerse your readers in your environment by describing every detail that makes it.
There’s also the litany of useless paragraphs that do nothing to move the story. They only repeat past events and possible outcomes, but that’s not very helpful. This is a novel, not an RPG game. Showing me the various dialogue options is useless because I can’t choose. Check out this awful paragraph.
“McNamara’s nightshirt, folded on the bureau. Could Jenny have gone back to the city already? Did she leave first thing in the morning, or in the middle of the night, right after Blanche lost consciousness? Could Jenny not even look her in the eye today?”
What’s the point of writing all these questions? The reader has plenty of questions of his own without the author forcing more on him. How is writing these questions down helps the post, or develops the themes? This is not a first person story. It’s okay to ramble sometimes in a first person story, because it’s a look into the character’s thoughts. This is an omniscient author, and a very bad one.
The characters are also just as dull as any bad thriller. The character-driven story only makes it more apparent. The story is driven by Blanche’s decisions, which is great. She’s an awful character though, and so is the story. She doesn’t have any character of her own. None of her choices point to a personality. She’s pretty stubborn, and she loves her baby. It’s not much of a character to build a story upon. The whoe baby thing is especially sad. Donoghue has an eye for women’s issues. Blanche and Jenny take the center not as womem but as human beings, but they’re shallow human beings. Blanche only cares about her baby and Jenny is very cool.
Jenny is even a worse character to drive a story. She’s very cool. We learn how different she is. She wears pants. She has sex with women. She hunts frog. She’s far from a ‘lady’. There’s supposed to be a feminist message here, perhaps. It gets lost among the blows from Donoghue’s hammer. She keeps beating into the reader’s head how cool Jenny is. That’s not very different than beating you on the head with the sexiness of Scarlett Joahnson.
She succeeds a little better with the antagonists. They’re assholes, but reasonable ones. Arthur is an interesting character. Donoghue beats the mighty Atwood for once because she’s aware that the power of attractive people gets them drunk. Arthur’s story of a fallen sex icon is an engaging one, especially how hits the bottom. Ernest’s arc also offer some surprises. They’re not completely fleshed out, but as antagonists they’re not here so we could hate them. They’re here so we could see their mistakes and falls, to confront why their ideas are wrong. Maybe Donoghue was afraid writing a book about an asshole like Arthur, but the fall of every girls’ dream guy is more interesting than this pseudo-thriller thing.
There is barely anything good in this novel. The writing is among the worse maximalism has to offer. The only worthwhile characters are the antagonists. Any theme or meaning is buried underneath this trash. It’s hard to believe this is the same person who wrote Room. Maybe that book was awful too, and I was just inexperienced.
1 lesbian out of 5
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