Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #51, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore
“What else can memory do? It can do nothing: It pretends to eat the shrapnel of your acts yet it cannot swallow or chew.” -Lorrie Moore
Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital is a profoundly wistful, depressing sort of book that covers a lot of well-trod territory—growing up, young womanhood, learning to live with the consequences of decisions we never knew we made in the first place—in a relatively short amount of space. It is Moore’s second novel, and as such suffers from a few early-writer indulgences: sentences that are too long and too flowery, long stretches of metaphor and reverie that are beautiful, but don’t ultimately move the story forward. Still, these occasional sins can be forgiven when you look at the story as a whole, the way blemishes on a beautiful painting can be forgiven when you stand back a few feet, because when taken as a whole it is a beautiful sad little story, somehow both small and universal in its scope.
This very short novel (novella, really) shifts between two narratives: that of the adolescent Berie and her best friend Sils, growing up in a small town just south of the Canadian border called Horsehearts; and the grown-up Berie, in Paris with her husband Daniel. Berie and Sils are beautifully realized characters, full of the kind young female enigma that is literary crack to writers, driving them to flower metaphors like “blooming” and “budding,” etc. Sils lives with an often empty house; her mother works long hours, there’s no father to speak of, and her brothers continually disappear to Canada to dodge the draft. Berie’s house is physically fuller, but no more satisfying; she lives with a set of emotionally absent Christian parents, a revolving cast of foreign houseguests, and her siblings, biological brother Claude and her adopted sister LaRoue. Claude and LaRoue play bit parts, chorus players to the starring roles of Sils and Berie, but her relationship with both is surprisingly developed for how little the book spends on them; her slow drifting apart from Claude after they are banished to separate rooms and her casual cruelty to LaRoue furnish some of the novel’s most quietly poignant moments.
But Sils is the bright sun against which most of the narrative turns, providing all the adolescent awe and early-onset nostalgia. She’s the kind of female character that only exists in books, but who also inexplicably reminds us of someone from our own lives, whose name we can’t quite remember. The younger Berie puts Sils on a pedestal; everything from her hair, to her breasts (developed earlier than Berie’s), to her mannerisms are the standards by which Berie measures herself. She can and does everything for Sils, and yet their friendship is not one-sided; instead, it is comprised of the genuine, uncomplicated emotion that is most often found in pre-teen relationships, the kind that doesn’t question its origins or future, but is simply content to be in each other’s company.
Of course, this being literary fiction, Sils and Berie do not manage to maintain their adolescent friendship. It becomes just another consequence of decisions made and unmade, an episode for the adult Berie to look back on as she grows old, stuck in a mutually abusive marriage and a life that grows duller by each passing day, to the point that even Paris holds few delights for her.
That the book affected me so profoundly can probably be traced back to my own adolescent friendship. I met my best friend in the world around the same age that Berie and Sils met, but fortunately our story took a less literary turn—I’m still groggy from the four hour bus ride from her city, a bus ride one of us manages to take every couple of months, so it’s safe to say our friendship has lasted the test of time better than Sils and Berie. It’s no accident; out of our sixteen-year friendship, only four of them have been spent with both of us in the same city, but despite geographical distance, and the many, many changes we’ve both undergone since we met at the age of 11, she remains not only my best friend but the best thing that exists in my life (and, I would argue, the world). There’s something about going through difficulty with someone at an early age that bonds you for life. Her mom died when we were twelve, and she was there for the obstacle course of shit that characterized my life from the ages of 17 to 22. In many ways, our friendship has continued because it had to. Were we to lose touch with each other, we would also lose touch with the episodes of life that made each of us who we are today. How can you not become a little less solid if that happens, a little more unrecognizable to yourself?
Berie and Sils are both a little less solid outside the protective bubble of their adolescent friendship, and it’s unlikely that either would recognize the adult versions of themselves. Berie’s appealing vulnerabilities are stripped away until she becomes the kind of sarcastic, dime-a-dozen sophisticate that over-populate every urban habitat in America. Sils’ complexities are buried beneath a niceness slightly creased with wear. Neither seem to have replaced each other with other close friends, and both seem disengaged with their lives, which is maybe the saddest part of all. Our lifespans go by about as fast as they probably do for the frogs in the novel’s titles; to spend one moment of them not fully present in your own life is a fucking tragedy.
To me, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? is an argument for friendship—it’s ability to ground, to give meaning, to provide sanctuary and adventure in equal measure. It’s a subtle argument, all its evidence drawn from the observations of what happens when friendship is abandoned. Friendship, like anything worth doing, requires the kind of time and quiet effort that gets edged out by the long work hours and myriad distractions that comprise most modern people’s day. Without it, friendships fade and die like plants, so gradually that we barely notice. And without friendship, we fade and die, so gradually we barely notice.
The name of the book comes from a painting by Sils, a representation of herself and Berie as kids, when they would go to the pond and provide healing ministrations to all the frogs wounded by Sils’ brothers’ BB guns. Who will run the frog hospital when they are gone, it asks, and the answer is probably no one.
Recommended For: readers of literary fictions and appreciators of flower metaphors
Read When: you’re feeling wistful for your childhood best friend (or, in my case, when you’re feeling smug about still being friends with your childhood best friend, who is objectively more awesome than everybody else’s best friend, childhood or otherwise)
Listen With: Music from the late sixties, in which most of the narrative takes place. I listened to a lot of Velvet Underground, the Beatles’ White Album, and the Beach Boys Pet Sounds.