COMING-OF-AGE stories are common. But ``Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?,'' a second novel by Lorrie Moore, is a fresh and unflinchingly honest look at adolescence. It is a small book, but its impact is quite big.
Moore describes a friendship between two teenage girls that, at least to one of them, is the most important thing in the world. The friendship gets them through the dullness of their lives while keeping ``the busy, roaring strange-tongued world at bay.''
The author depicts, to the smallest detail, a time when every emotion, every event seems huge and tragic. But it's a hopeful time too, especially in retrospect. ``I longed for a feeling again, a particular one: the one of approaching a room but of not yet having entered it,'' the protagonist says as a middle-aged woman.
At one point in the novel, this same character realizes she has never really known her mother. To know someone, after all, you have to ``go inside and feel, then step outside and look, and then do that again.... That was knowledge.'' And that's what Moore has done with this book. She has gone inside the mind of a 15-year-old girl and felt what she feels, then stepped outside and looked. The book is not free of cliches, but for the most part the author writes beautifully about what she sees.
``Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?'' is really a story within a story. It begins with Benoite-Marie Carr, vacationing in Paris with her husband. The marriage is crumbling, and the trip is of little help. As a way of coping with the present, Berie harks back to the summer of 1972.
She and her best friend Silsby Chaussee live in an Adirondack tourist town and work in an amusement park called Storyland. Sils, gorgeous and well developed, is hired to be Cinderella; Berie works as a cashier. During breaks, they meet to smoke, swear, and quietly ridicule the tourists. On weekends, they sneak into bars and let strange men drive them home.
``Nothing applied to us. We were set apart by adolescence and geography; the country was in upheaval, there was Vietnam and draft dodging and rock music.... [W]e made up our own rules, and they were loose.''
Berie suffers silently as Sils falls in love for the first time. ``How I resented the boys coming, as they did. I resented it early, even the hint of it.'' When Sils gets pregnant, Berie, playing the hero, steals from the Storyland cash register to pay for an abortion.
Afterwards, Berie continues to steal and when she is caught, she is sent to church camp and then to boarding school. When she sees Sils on holidays, they are awkward with each other. ``She seemed tired and sad and it made me want to run, to be gone...,'' Berie says.
Berie goes on to college, leaving Sils behind, and they slowly lose touch. With regret, Berie realizes that she can't know for certain whether Sils will hold onto their shared life or put it aside to make room for other experiences, other friendships.
The book's title comes from the girls' futile efforts to rescue the frogs that boys pelt with BB guns. Sils paints a picture of the ailing frogs and entitles it, ``Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?''
After she has married, Berie reads about frogs disappearing from Earth. ``And I thought of those walks up the beach road I'd made any number of times in the sexual evening hum of summer, how called and lovely and desired you felt, how possible, even when you weren't at all. It was the frogs doing that. Later, it seemed true, that I rarely heard frogs anymore.'' With deceptively simple words, Moore celebrates girlhood and mourns its loss.