One random day in January 2016, shortly before I was due to head to Denver for a bookseller’s conference, a book arrived at the bookstore for me – a copy of Be Frank with Me. Needless to say I was incredibly intrigued and discovered that I was due to have dinner with the author while in Denver and the publisher sent me the finished copy to read beforehand!
Reclusive literary legend M. M. “Mimi” Banning has been holed up in her Bel Air mansion for years. But after falling prey to a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme, she’s flat broke. Now Mimi must write a new book for the first time in decades, and to ensure the timely delivery of her manuscript, her New York publisher sends an assistant to monitor her progress. The prickly Mimi reluctantly complies – with a few stipulations: No Ivy Leaguers or English majors. Must drive, cook, tidy. Computer whiz. Good with kids. Quiet, discreet, sane.
When Alice Whitley arrives at the Banning mansion, she’s put to work right away – as a full-time companion to Frank, the writer’s eccentric nine-year-old, a boy with the wit of Noel Coward, a wardrobe of a 1930s movie star, and very little in common with his fellow fourth graders.
As she gets to know Frank, Alice becomes consumed with finding out who his father is, how his gorgeous “piano teacher and itinerant male role model” Xander fits into the Banning family equation – and whether Mimi will ever finish that book.
Admittedly, I was very hesitant to start reading Frank as I had the dreaded “required-reading-and-exams” flashback each time I looked at it, so I didn’t actually start reading it until I was sitting on the plane to Denver. Instantly, though, I found myself drawn into Alice’s experience as a publishing assistant trying to keep Mimi on track to finish her second novel (sort of like Harper Lee and Go Set a Watchman) and her efforts to keep an eye on Frank.
Alice is a twenty-something know-it-all, just like me, and, like me and most other childless twenty-somethings, thinks she knows a hell of a lot more about parenting than she really does. While she is not outwardly critical of Mimi’s decisions regarding Frank’s upbringing, as the story is told in first person and exclusively from Alice’s point of view, readers are acutely aware of how she really feels, not only about Mimi as a single mother, but also about Frank, whom she comes to love as if he were her own.
While Alice is the narrator, the story is not really hers to tell – it is Frank and Mimi’s. Like the reader, Alice is an interloper, a stranger, being forcibly inserted into a very delicate, sensitive, unfamiliar and precariously perched family unit, and she must learn to accept that role, and later embrace it if they are all to survive their summer of forced cohabitation. Alice and Frank’s relationship is the heart of Be Frank with Me, but Frank’s relationship with his mother and the world around him is really the soul of the story. Frank is, by far, one of my favorite children in literature and I would love to see more of him if Julia Claiborne Johnson plans to continue his story.
The only part of the story that fell flat is the role of Xander, who serves as Frank’s sole male role model, and he’s not a very good one by the standards of keeping promises, holding a job, and general maturity (despite being well into middle age), but he loves Frank, and for Frank, that really is sufficient. His relationship with Alice feels contrived and their romance is superfluous and unnecessary when viewed next to the strength of each of their relationships with Frank.
Rating: 8 out of 10 stars
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