For every book we read during the book club, one of our book club members will write a review. This way anyone who couldn’t be there, can still join in with the fun! Roy den Boer is taking over as our main reviewer for the book club books, judging all that we have picked.
In Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? Berie Carr is a woman spending her days wandering Paris while her marriage is crumbling, but her thoughts are elsewhere. The book is her telling us about her hometown of Horsehearts in upstate New York and mostly concerns her teenage friendship with a girl named Sils. Berie describes Sils as “the most sophisticated girl in Horsehearts, not a tough task, but you have to understand what that could do to a girl.” The two girls each become a woman, though not at the same time. The book mostly focuses on the period where Sils was developing a lot faster than Berie was when boyfriends started stealing away Sils’ attention.
There is absolutely no way to describe the plot in a way that sounds as fresh and brilliant as the book truly is. Stories of teenage friendship have been told thousands of time probably. The trials and tribulations of growing up isn’t fresh territory for writers to tackle, but Moore here proves that what you tell isn’t nearly as important as how you tell it. Moore is a great writer and it shows. She could be accused of being slightly too heady for her own good. She denies the reader sentimentality in favor of reality and some symbolism, and the criticism can be fair. I think she gets away with it though, because the subject matter of teenage friendships has so often been steeped in the golden colors of sentimental nostalgia in every medium. There is nostalgia here, of course, but it’s not the syrupy sweet kind. There’s a bitterness to this nostalgia. Berie yearns for her youth in some ways, but is never unaware that she was a miserable teenager.
What Moore delivers here is an amazing feat of balance: her world is both amazingly specific in its details and yet completely recognizable. It is both strange and familiar. Extraordinary and ordinary. We may never have repeatedly hired a very small round cab driver who used to play Humpty Dumpty in the local theme park, but we all have our own oddball person that popped up a few times in our past. We may not have grown up in an early 1970s small town, but we know the feelings Moore evokes here. She captures how childhood was, how we look back and how all experiences are unique in their own weird ways. She balances it all by continually making the right decisions on what gets focus and what doesn’t. The large tragedies are written off in a single line, while a small seeming nothingness can get a paragraph. There’s an amazing courage to this way of writing, because the payoff is richer but subtler. There’s no grand cathartic moment toward the end of the novel where Berie reaches some grand realization about her life or where Berie and Sils reconnect late in life.
The book achieves a lot in its short page count, and it certainly is a short book. The book clocks in at about 160 pages. There’s always a danger to books this short, for me at least. Having the ending so tantalizingly close from the very beginning is a threat to thoughtful reading. There’s a cheap thrill to finishing a book quickly, and a short book like this makes that so very easy. But Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? is much better served by taking it slow. There’s so much subtlety here that can easily be lost in a race to the finish line.
I really feel like Moore does something special here. She really captures something about the way we experience our own past in a way I haven’t seen done before. There’s a tendency to focus on the big and loud moments in narratives like this, but Moore focuses on odd or simple moments and fills them with richness. The moments spent sneaking a cigarette with a friend and making bad jokes aren’t the stuff of big drama, but together all those moments form the true nature of our past, our friendships. There’s an honesty on display in this book that feels rare and packs the book with an unexpected punch that may not be felt right away, but that Moore builds meticulously in such a short novel.