Postal Reading group
June 2022
Notes on the book Who will run the frog hospital by Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore’s book Who will run the frog hospital is a book which promises a lot, starting with the intriguing title, but which in my opinion ultimately fails to deliver. Based on the description on the back of the book readers are promised the book will consider the bonds in the close friendship between Berie and Sils. In reality there seems nothing particularly special or unusual about the friendship, leaving a book which comes across only as an unexceptional and uninspiring ‘coming of age’ story.

Although the book begins in Paris, most of the story is set in Horesehearts, a small town in New York, where Berie and Sils are working at Storyland, and amusement park based around themes from children’s literature. When Sils falls pregnant, Berie steals some of the takings from her till to pay for an abortion, an act which is arguably intended to strengthen their friendship, but which appears to have the opposite effect. However, once Berie is discovered she is sent away to a church camp for the summer, before starting a boarding school.

The above summary highlights the main problem with this book: in one single paragraph I have basically summarized the entire story. Yes, of course, there are scenes I’ve missed out, and many of comments which are doubtless intended to be humorous, but the above still succeeds in capturing the essence of the plot.

This book is essentially a ‘coming of age’ story, but the problem is that I can’t see anything particularly special about either Berie or Sils, or the friendship between them. Yes, Sils becomes accidentally pregnant, but teenage pregnancies while unfortunate certainly aren’t unheard of. Indeed, they often seem to be a common theme in similar stories, possibly for the sense of scandal. Beyond this, apart from the short scenes in Paris, most of the story is set in Horsehearts over a single summer. By all accounts, they must look forward to the occasional teenage pregnancy as it does at least give them something to talk about. Even the amusement park seems to be the kind of place which discerning tourists (and children) will instinctively avoid.

Recently it has been impossible to avoid the news from America about the Supreme Courts decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade, and the consequent threat to abortion rights especially in the more conservative states. While the author does not seem to consider Sils’ pregnancy to be a particularly significant event, in the absence of other themes, given the timing of the news it does seem strangely topical at least. Like Moore’s book, I don’t intend to reopen that particular debate, but it is worth noting that the decision will presumably mean many more teenagers resorting to petty crime to fund a trip to Canada. Again, perhaps the judges responsible for the decision relish the ‘excitement’ of the scandals; I just feel sorry for the unfortunate girls.

Apart from this quite coincidental topical connection, it is difficult to find any real themes in the book, or to understand what the author was trying to achieve. Although the writing was quite adequate, much of it did seem to be rather contrived, rather like the restaurant where customers were invited to cook their own steak; or “cook your own mistake” as Sils called it. Do such restaurants even exist? Likewise, the friendship between Berie and Sils seems to be equally contrived: they never seemed to be particularly close, with any closeness forced by reason of having unfulfilling, poorly paid jobs at the amusement park. I might even be tempted to suggest that Storyland itself was contrived, although such places do exist, more usually near Christmas with men dressed as Santa, unhappy reindeer and fake snow!

The effect of the small town in which the characters live seems to be reflected in the book as a whole, with a lot of space and significance being attached to events which in the wider context would be insignificant. While detailed writing about minutiae may be a clever device in the absence of any specific plot, in this case the result is annoying and just as contrived as any complex plot. The only redeeming feature, however, is that the book is short and Moore has at least resisted the temptation to make up any further details just to serve as padding.

In conclusion, Who will run the frog hospital is an unexceptional coming of age story. As I have commented before in similar reviews, this is a crowded genre and it is difficult to make books really stand out. With two unexceptional characters in a small town, this book has little to hold the readers interest. Although the author has written about minute details and added a few humorous details, like the characters many of these seem contrived. Ultimately I found the book to be unexceptional and uninteresting, redeemed only by being a short book.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler