Book review: Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

Wednesday, February 3, 2016 Permalink

I’ve struggled with the superlatives I need to describe this novel… one, I must confess, I went into without great enthusiasm. But almost immediately I was drawn into the eccentric world of reclusive author Mimi, her son Frank and their interloper, Alice.

As it happens, the promo material says it all: captivating, infectious and irresistible. So the only word I can think to add (and one which most certainly comes to mind when considering this novel) is ‘delightful’.

Book review: Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne JohnsonBe Frank With Me: A Novel
by Julia Claiborne Johnson
Published by Corvus
on February 1st 2016
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Literary Fiction
ISBN: 9781782399179
Pages: 256

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, the wardrobe of a 1930s movie star, and very little in common with his fellow fourth-graders.

As she slowly gets to know Frank, Alice becomes consumed with finding out who Frank's 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.

Oh god… where to start?! I loved everything about this book. Plot-wise, not a lot happens…. but everything happens. If that makes sense. And it all hinges on the fabulous characters Johnson has created.

MM Banning (Mimi) reeks of Harper Lee – an enigma, famous for her one and only award-winning book written decades ago. Interestingly she’s probably the character we get to know least in this story. She’s pivotal, but at the periphery of everything happening in her life. She’s aloof, prickly and unpredictable. Readers will occasionally question her mothering skills but there’s no doubt she loves her son. Desperately.

Alice is like a breath of fresh air. Not just for the Banning household but for we readers. She describes herself as fairly plain and practical. Her boss (the publisher) discovered her working at the Genius bar in an Apple shop and snaps her up… recognising an intelligence and wisdom that underpins everything she does.

And she’s hilarious. Droll, witty, able to laugh at herself; and with a strong hide she’s the perfect foil to Mimi’s irascibility and just the person to foster but ‘tame’ the perilous Frank.

Alice spends months in the Banning house, listening to the clicking of the typewriter keys from outside a locked door, frustrated she’s unable to send chapters through to her boss as planned. I was surprised however, at  at Alice’s unflappability and tried to think back to my own 25yr old self. Was I that tolerant? That resilient?

As for 9yr old Frank, well… he’s a delight. There’s no real diagnosis of his personality quirks, but I suspect he would feature on the autism disorder spectrum.

“I have uncanny intuition unencumbered by the editorial reflex,” he said. “I heard Dr Abrams explain it that way to my mother when I pressed my ear to the door during during one of their marathon discussions. My mother’s response was, “Where I come from we call that tactless.”

“Can you tell me what she meant by that? I have tacks. Quite a nice collection, in many colours. I understand that thumbtacks have fallen out of favour since the invention of the Post-it note, but my mother knows I am still a fan. When I asked her why she said I was tackless, all she did was sigh. Can you explain that?” p 32

Ridiculously intelligent (as he keeps reminding Alice and everyone around him) his thirst for knowledge is insatiable. He and Alice counter-balance each other perfectly.

Sadly though, it’s obvious that a boy who will only wear top hats and tails, or the occasional boater hat and won’t allow anyone to touch him or his things, will struggle to fit in.

The novel’s written in first person from Alice’s point of view and the prose – predominantly through the dialogue – is beautiful. Johnson manages to eke out great humour, even in the saddest, most poignant scenes.

Of course… all good things must come to an end, but (for a change) I wasn’t left wanting when I turned the last page. Wondering, but not wanting.

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and is now available.

I received a copy of this book for review purposes.

* As an aside, this would make a wonderful movie and I can’t help but imagine the tres talented star of Room (Jacob Tremblay) as Frank! #justsaying

  • Julia Claiborne Johnson
    February 3, 2016

    Is it out in Australia? I keep asking when the pub date is but nobody tells me anything! Please don’t tell them I’m bitching. I JUST WANT TO KNOW. Also, thank you for that lovely review. It took me 5 years to write, plus another in editing. So gratifying to hear after all that.

    • Debbish
      February 3, 2016

      Hi Julia and thanks for dropping by. The media release I received listed publication date of 27 Jan, but I noted it elsewhere(Amazon AU for eg) as 2 Feb. I did check with a big online bookseller here and they have it available.

      And I really loved it a lot. I think you nailed Frank’s voice perfectly. Some of my favourite books ever reflect the same thing (Room, The Eye of the Sheep, Lost & Found, When The Night Comes, for eg.).

  • @Kanga_Rue
    February 3, 2016

    I was just looking at this book online today and was wondering about it… Now I desperately want to read it. High praise from such an avid reader as yourself Deb! #addittothelist

    • Debbish
      February 3, 2016

      And it’s a real 5-star book from me – rather than 4.5-but-Goodreads-has-no-half-stars-so-5 star-by-default read!

  • cakaveka
    February 3, 2016

    I loved it too! Just a lovely read. Deb, do you mind if I post your review on the Mary Ryan’s FB page?

    • Debbish
      February 3, 2016

      Of course not Cate. Feel free to do that any time!

  • Karen Comer
    February 4, 2016

    I’ve heard a few things about this book but now it’s on my must-read list! Thank for a great review, Deb.

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