Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore's Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? is a coming of age novel of sorts, centred on the friendship between Berie, the narrator, and her best friend Sils as they grow up in Horsehearts, a tiny town in 1970s upstate New York, just over the border from Canada.

Both girls have summer jobs at Storyland, a shabby theme park where Berie sells tickets and Sils, the prettier of the two, plays Cinderella. Berie's family are Baptists who welcome a stream of foster children, while Sils has older brothers who play in bands and constantly cross into Quebec to avoid the Vietnam draft. The girls seem inseparable, and an apparent lack of interest from their parents about where they are gives them considerable freedom.

But then Sils meets Mike, an older boy with an apartment and a motorbike, and when something goes badly wrong for her, Berie is the one who takes it upon herself to fix it. It's a decision that marks a turning point in her life, and things are never quite the same for her again.

This is more than just the story of two teenage girls, though. It's a lament for a lost friendship and a different time, and for a closeness that's destroyed in part by the two girls' different destinies - while Sils is the more beautiful and confident of the two, it's Berie who breaks away from Horsehearts and sees the world - but also simply by growing up.

It's an extended stay in her Paris with her husband Daniel that seems to trigger Berie's reminiscences, and it's clear that her relationship with him is fragile - there's an underlying sense of them walking on eggshells in each other's presence. Berie also has an adoptive sister, LaRoue, in whom she freely admits she shows almost zero interest - perhaps because she's Sils' polar opposite - and a brother, from whom she drifts apart in her teens, but it's clear that nothing has ever quite replaced her relationship with Sils. It's as if the subconscious notion that something is missing has never left her, and we get the impression that there's a part of her that wants to return to the very childhood she couldn't wait to leave behind.

Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? reminded me a little bit of My Name Is Lucy Barton - there's that same sense of an adult looking back on a sometimes difficult smalltown childhood and never being quite sure if things really happened quite as she remembers. There's also a similar lack of sentimentality - no matter how much Berie laments the loss of her friendship with Sils, there's no point at which she looks on it through rose-tinted spectacles and she freely recalls the occasional envy and resentment that's an inevitable part of childhood friendships. It's very funny and acutely well-observed, and while it's probably fair to say that not a great deal actually happens, plot isn't the point of this book. It's a short read and an effortless one, but it's one of those books in which I found something I wanted to underline on almost every page.