If I’m planning on reviewing a book, I try not to read any reviews until after I’ve posted my own thoughts. Not only do I find that many reviewers include too much information about the plot, I don’t want their opinions or language to influence mine. You would think that it’s possible to ignore what others have said about a book, but I find that words and phrases from other reviews burrow into my mind.
And that’s what happened with Be Frank With Me, Julia Claiborne Johnson’s debut novel — out in paperback today. When the book was published last winter, reviews popped up everywhere, and I gave in and read quite a few of them. Almost every one used the same adjectives to describe Be Frank With Me: charming, witty, original, and poignant . . . which are exactly the same ones I’d use to describe this book, which also possesses a rare quality : it’s not depressing. Anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis knows that while I relish “depressing” books, I’ve found that many readers are constantly, and often in vain, searching for books that are uplifting, but still have some substance. This is the book for them, and for anyone who enjoys a smart, funny novel with quirky characters.
Frank Banning is a nine-year-old boy who’s somewhere on the autism spectrum, brilliant, and obsessed with classic movies: “Pinocchio, the eponymous Academy Award-winning film released in 1940 by the Walt Disney Studios, s one of my favorite animated movies.” His mother, M.M. (Mimi) Banning, wrote Pitched, a Pulitzer and National Book Award-winning masterpiece, when she was a teenager but hasn’t published another novel since. Having lost her fortune and facing losing the copyright to her book, Mimi is under the gun to write a new novel, since “good, bad, or indifferent, it would be a best-seller.”
Along with a large advance, Mimi demands that her publisher send an assistant to her Los Angeles home (which is, significantly, made of glass) to help manage all aspects of her life while she finishes the book. Mimi, who is cantankerous, to say the least, requires that her assistant possess these qualifications:
- No Ivy Leaguers or English majors.
- Drives. Cooks. Tidies.
- Computer whiz.
- Good with kids.
- Quiet. Discreet. Sane.
Enter the narrator, twenty-four-year-old Alice Whitley, private school math teacher and computer store employee, who thinks she’s been hired to keep Mimi on track and email drafts of her novel to her publisher in New York, but soon learns that she’s not an editorial assistant, but a companion to a brilliant and lonely little boy with special needs. In a way, the novel turns out to be a coming-of-age story about Alice, who is wiser and more perceptive than she knows.
Much of what happens in Be Frank With Me is implausible; to begin with, would a publisher really send an assistant (with no editorial experience) to live with a reclusive, has-been author? To enjoy this book, readers must suspend disbelief and go along for the ride — and it’s a very entertaining ride, full of surprises. The book is worth reading just for Frank — he’s a one-of-a-kind, and a completely believable. Learning that Alice is twenty-four, Frank comments:
Dr. Abrams says that’s when the prefrontal cortex usually finishes developing. That’s the part of your brain that controls impulsivity. According to her forecast, by the time I’m twenty-five I’ll be old enough to know better. If we’re lucky. It might happen later, when I’m thirty. Or never. Some people’s prefrontal cortexes mature earlier than others. Women’s, mostly. Debbie Reynolds was a teenager when she made Singin’ in the Rain, for example.
Johnson says that Frank’s character was inspired in part by To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Boo Radley. After rereading To Kill a Mockingbird when her daughter was assigned to read it at school, Johnson, who’d been a writer most of her life but had never written a novel, came up with the idea of a novel “about a writer, one, who’d written about an oddball kid and then ended up having one of her own.” It’s a peculiar coincidence that Go Set a Watchman was published in 2015, when Johnson had already finished her book about a famous author writing her second novel.
Fans of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and The Rosie Project will enjoy Be Frank With Me . . . as will film buffs. The paperback version, sent to me by HarperCollins, includes a seven-page Be Frank With Me “Guide to Film Viewing.”