The summer of 1876 was a harrowing time to be in San Francisco. A heat wave exacerbated a smallpox epidemic. Life would have been difficult enough without those travails, as the protagonists of the book know. One, Jenny Bonnet, lives outside the law as a cross-dresser, and her newly found friend, Blanche Beunon, a saloon dancer and courtesan, is the sole breadwinner in her unusual family. Both women have backstories of damage, abuse, and heartbreak, which are expertly revealed, bit-by-bit, by Donoghue.
The book opens with Jenny’s murder. (Donoghue fictionalized an account of a real, unsolved crime.) Blanche’s attachment to Jenny and concern for her own safety draw her to investigate, and in the process she learns Jenny’s secrets that were meant to remain hidden.
This was a raw time in our history, when life was cheap. The historical backdrop comprises anti-Chinese riots, “orphanages” for unwanted children, and of course, the running theme of the domestic abuse both Jenny and Blanche try to whitewash.
It’s a rich setting, and Donoghue pairs it with a fast paced plot. Is it Jenny’s eccentric persona that invites her murder, or were Blanche’s own messy relationships the catalyst for that? The ancillary characters are colorful, and the motif of contemporary music is engaging. Donoghue really did her homework in preparing this book, and every page is a pleasure.