Where does the singing go?

The title of Lorrie Moore’s poignant, funny, short (148 pages), brilliant novel asks the question: Who will run the frog hospital?  The black and white frontispiece “illustration” by Nancy Mladenoff features two frogs sitting on a rock in the foreground, one with a splinted front leg, the other with a bandaged head. In the background, two preteen girls dressed in pants and shirts stand among trees whispering.

I like Mladenoff’s artwork, and when I first saw the frontispiece I wondered if she created it for the book or if Moore was inspired by an existing Mladenoff piece. According to a New York Times article, Lorrie Moore saw the painting in an exhibit, bought it, and incorporated it into her novel — title and all. 

In the book, the teenage character Sils, best friend of first-person narrator Berie Carr, paints a picture similar to Mladenoff’s, but in Sils’ version the whispering girls are dressed up as Cinderellas. According to Berie, the frogs looked like frogs who’d been kissed and kissed roughly, yet stayed frogs. What young American girl growing up in the 1950s and 60s (pre-MTV) didn’t want to be Cinderella, or be the Princess who turned the frog into a Prince with only a kiss? But this is real life, not a fairy tale.

The narrative travels back and forth between present day Paris circa early 1990s (the book was published in 1994), where 35ish Berie is with her husband, Daniel, and Berie’s girlhood in Horsehearts, New York, the summer of 1972 when she was 15 and worked with Sils at Storyland. In the summer story, Berie steals money to pay for an abortion for Sils, whom she idolizes; in the Paris story, Berie questions what is missing from her marriage. 

Lesson: Layer time like a club sandwich, then let the reader take a bite

Writers of memoir and narrative nonfiction, as well as novelists, can learn from Moore’s skillful handling of fictional time travel. Her opening lines—In Paris we eat brains every night. My husband likes the vaporous, fishy mousse of them—establish place and context for the present. The first paragraph’s last line—Me, I’m eating for a flashback—foreshadows the dip into the past that occurs on the third page. Moore handles present time in present tense, flashbacks in past tense. At times the prose roams with Berie’s musings—a woman at early middle age examining her life; at times it functions to orient us to time, place, and event.  

In the first six pages, Moore has Berie make several time shifts in the narrative:

From present: In Paris, we eat brains every night.

Back to childhood: When I was a child, I tried hard to split my voice.

Forward to the summer she was 15: Although no voice was ever plain in our house—not really. Even if it took practically my whole life, until the summer I was fifteen, for me to see that.

Back to more childhood: Everything in our house when I was young felt cloaked with foreignness, code, mood.

Forward to adulthood at a time previous to Paris: Later, when I was an adult, someone at a dinner party played me a recording of Asian monks who could indeed split their voices, create a shattered, choral sound that was like being oneself but also so many others.

Further forward to the present: Certainly “safe” is what I am now—or am supposed to be.

And back to the summer: The summer I was fifteen I worked at a place called storyland with my friend Silsby Chaussee, who all this is really about.

Chomp! By now, we’re eager to bite into the story, and we savor this tidbit of information. We hang in there with Berie as she concocts her layered childhood tale, because we assume that she will make sense out of these memories, and that they will have a bearing on the other story—the one in Paris with her husband.  

Lesson: Set a place from which readers can travel through time and to which they can return

Moore now keeps Berie focused on the summer of 1972 story for 41 pages, with several darts forward and backward.

A quick reference forward to another of Berie’s teenage friends: Ten years later Randi would have a nervous breakdown selling Mary kay Cosmetics…

A long view back, a reminder that the narrator is speaking from the present time: I was invaded by Sils, who lives now in my vanished girlhood, a place to return to at night, in a fat sleep, during which she is there, standing long-armed and balanced on stones in the swamp stream, stone in the cemetery, stones in the gravelly road out back.

A short jump forward from 1972: Once, when I was nineteen, I gave my father a Father’s Day card meant for uncles and neighbors.

A bigger jump forward, referring to her father: Years later, however, I grew angry; taking inventory of all he’d said and done, I came to think of him, bitterly, as a kind of Nazi.

Back to 1972: Sils was not really in love with her boyfriend, Mike, I was sure of it.

A long jump forward: Later, as an adult, when I was wonderfully used to long, important conversations in restaurants or bars—books, love, politics, science—talk that licked about like a flame…

Back to 1972 and Sils: Almost sixteen, she was the sort of fifteen-year-old who looked twenty.

Further back: Years before, when we were eleven, we’d already begun our myriad personal rituals of assertion and disguise.

A leap forward: Decades later, in my one lone year of Housewife’s Bathrobe Disease, my husband at work but not me…

Back to 1972: I knew that morning, my mother dropping me off in front of Storyland, and me glimpsing Sils arriving at the same time with Mike…

A shift to present, where Berie stays for two pages: Sometimes with Daniel I argue about the sixties.

A jump back to 1972 for 21 pages: It was on a Tuesday, my day off, that I planned to show Sils the money.

A chapter break to the present: There is a joke about a middle-aged woman who happens upon a frog in the woods.

Lesson: When readers have devoured half the main narrative, dish out the other story line.

Moore’s book is not formula fiction of any kind that I know of, yet it is a perfectly balanced story. Just as we’re getting nervous that Berie’s theft will be discovered, Moore clears away Horsehearts ’72 and serves a big helping of Berie in Paris.
It’s the halfway point in the novel—from page 69 to 85. Berie is paired with Daniel, and with her friend Marguerite, a half-American, half-French painter. Berie has a crush on Marguerite, who reminds her of what perhaps Sils would be, could have been.

Within this section, Berie bridges the two places in her mind: From Horsehearts to Paris, I think, staring at the ceiling. Has anyone even put those two places in the same thought before? She has, of course. She’s the same person who’s experienced both places, but she feels the disconnect between the child Berie and the adult, and that’s also what this story is really all about.

Lesson: Finish the first story and bring the past up to present

In the next 57 pages, Berie returns in her memory to the summer story and recounts getting busted at Storyland, being shipped off to camp and boarding school, and losing contact with Sils. Ten years after graduating from college, she attends a class reunion in Horsehearts and sees Sils, but chemistry they had, the closeness, the magic of their girlhood has disappeared.

In the last chapter, Berie is in Paris with Daniel, who is wrestling with his heart. He’s asked for her patience. She tells herself: I will wait until I just can’t wait anymore.

Lesson: Capture a moment in time that readers can take with them in their own hearts far beyond the story

Long ago Berie and Sils had tweezed BBs out of frogs that the neighborhood boys shot in the swamps of Horsehearts, nursing and bandaging them, but rescuing few. When they became teenagers and turned their attention the boys, the girls stopped trying to save the frogs. 

Long ago, Berie had tried to split her voice. She and Sils loved to sing, wherever and whenever. At story’s end, Berie relives a moment during an April afternoon in the 10th grade, rehearsing with the Girls’ Choir and Sils in the gymnasium. It is one of the most beautiful paragraphs that I’ve ever read, and one that exemplifies why we read fiction and memoir—for the writer’s ability to capture in words something as grand as life’s meaning in all its glory, love, and loss. Good writing holds in time moments that speak universally to the human spirit and would otherwise escape us. I won’t quote the long paragraph here; you can read the book (I hope you do!). Here is the last sentence: Though sometimes in my brain I go back to that afternoon, to relive it, sail up there again toward the acoustic panels, the basketball hoops, and the old oak clock, the careful harmonies set loose from our voices so pure and exact and light we wondered later, packing up to leave, how high and fast and far they had gone.

The question of who will run the frog hospital remains unanswered.