Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Fiction Review: Be Frank With Me

I was thrilled when my neighborhood book group chose Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson for our September selection because I’d heard good things about this novel. It lived up to my expectations – almost everyone in my book group loved this funny, quirky, heartwarming story of a very unusual little boy.

Alice is a young twenty-something assistant working in the publishing industry. Her boss, editor Isaac Vargas, gives her a strange but important assignment: to fly to California and help one of their star authors finish a long-awaited book. M. M. Banning (known as Mimi to her friends) is a mysterious and reclusive author who wrote one best-seller when she was young that became a classic and never wrote another novel (think Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird). She’s gone through some financial difficulties and now needs to publish a second novel, decades later.

Alice is sent to help her with household tasks so she can write, help her with the computer (she still writes on a typewriter), and keep an eye on the progress of the book for Mr. Vargas. When she arrives, however, she finds that her primary role is that of caretaker for Mimi’s unusual nine-year old boy, Frank. In fact, Mimi doesn’t let her see anything she’s working on.

To give you an idea of Frank’s oddness, here is Alice’s first glimpse of him:
“M.M. Banning and I were seated on the living room couch, watching her son playing outside in the hot, bright son. The kid, dressed in a tattered tailcoat and morning pants, accessorized by bare feet and a grubby face, looked like some fictional refugee from the pages of Oliver Twist, one who’d walked all the way to Los Angeles from Dicken’s London and had slept in ditches at night along the way.”

That passage also gives you a glimpse of the author’s wonderful sense of humor. Those turned out to be Frank’s play clothes. He always dresses in miniature outfits that look like they came from classic Hollywood films but was usually far more dapper and cleaned up for outings beyond the house and yard. Here’s a passage from the opening prologue, describing Frank as he and Alice rode a city bus together:
“But his looks weren’t what had our fellow travelers transfixed, certainly not in a place like Hollywood where gorgeous kids are so common that you even see them on city buses. No, what got people staring was Frank’s look. Before we left the house that morning, he’d shellacked his hair like a mini Rudolph Valentino, put on a wing-collared shirt, white tie and vest, a cutaway coat, morning pants, and spats. Also a top hat, which he balanced on his knees while we rode to the hospital because, as he’d explained to our bus driver when the man admired it, “A gentleman never wears his hat indoors.” “

So, yes, Frank is adorable but also very hard to get close to. He’s a very quirky kid (after a while, you realize he probably has autism), as is his reclusive mother. Frank has two hard and fast rules: No touching Frank, and no touching Frank’s things. Alice, of course, learns the importance of these rules by trial and error.

Alice and Frank spend their days together, in a constantly amusing way, and slowly – very slowly – get to know each other better and come to care about each other. Mimi is mostly shut up in her room, typing (at least Alice hopes she’s really typing). There is a big mystery as to who Frank’s father is, since Mimi has never said. Add into the equation one other person whom the isolated Bannings allow into their lives – the mysterious Xander, a handsome man who describes himself as Frank’s “piano teacher and itinerant male role model.”

This is a very, very funny novel. It’s become trite to say something is “laugh-out-loud funny,” but it is really true in this case – I was bursting out with unexpected laughter the whole time I was reading this book. It’s not just funny, though; this is also a very warm, tender story about the growing relationship between Alice and Frank. Elements of mystery and suspense are also woven in along the way. Will Mimi finish her book? Who is Frank’s father? Where does Xander go when he disappears and what is his story anyway? Quirky, prickly, sweet Frank, though, is at the heart of this witty, clever, uplifting story, and I was sorry to say goodbye to him at the end.

287 pages, William Morrow

Disclosure: I borrowed this book from the library. My review is my own opinion.

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Listen to a sample of the audiobook here and/or download it from Audible.


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Or you can order Be Frank with Me from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

Be Frank With Me A Novel
by Julia Claiborne JohnsonTrade Paperback


  1. I think it's difficult to find books that are funny and upiffting. This one sounds fun