Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Be Frank with Me

Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson
HarperCollins: 2/2/16
Hardcover, 304 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9780062413710

Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson is a very highly recommended novel about a reclusive writer, her exceptional son, and the assistant sent to help her.

After writing a beloved award winning novel decades ago at age 19, M. M. “Mimi” Banning is a recluse who never published another word. Now, after losing all her money, she has to write another book.  She contacts her editor, Isaac Vargas, and says she will write a new book, but has two stipulations. First, she wants a large advance. Second the assistant who will be sent at the publisher's expense to ensure she meets her deadline must be able to drive, cook, clean, be sane, not an English major or Ivy Leaguer, and be good with kids.

Vargas sends Alice Whitley, a 24 year old accounting major from Nebraska. Alice has been working as an assistant to Mr. Vargas and he thinks she is the perfect candidate to keep an eye on acerbic Mimi and take care of her son, Frank. Once Alice arrives, Mimi insists on calling her Penny, because she "looks like a Penny," and Mimi locks herself in her den to write. Alice becomes the care taker for nine year old Frank.

Frank has a couple rules, starting with don't touch his things and don't touch him without permission. Clearly he is an intelligent boy with some form of Autism. He enjoys dressing in complete outfits, usually based on movies from the 1930's. He also has an encyclopedic knowledge of older movies and a photographic memory for all manner of facts. Frank is partly charming and partly challenging. Life isn't easy for this displaced nine year old who requires constant supervision, rarely sleeps, and meets regularly with his psychiatrist. There are many items that Alice must keep from Frank, like scissors and matches, while she must also accept the fact that he will go through her things and is light fingered.

Alice becomes increasingly curious about Frank. Who is his father? How does the mysterious piano teacher Xander fit into the picture? And is Mimi really writing her novel behind that door?

Johnson delivers a wonderful debut novel with Be Frank with Me. The narrative will fully engage you. It's funny, poignant, and a satisfying story that will have you racing to see what happens next. The writing is pitch perfect as Johnson captures precocious Frank and matter-of-fact Alice. I finished Be Frank with Me in one sitting, which signifies Johnson's ability to write a novel that will hold and keep your attention.

While on the surface Be Frank with Me seems like a light-hearted, fun read, but there is much more to this novel should you care to ponder it. Johnson provides some real depth in her characters. They are all unique individuals with a backstory and well developed. I did question why the school wasn't helping Frank more or offering supportive services when he'd clearly qualify for some support, but I was willing to suspend my questions about this.

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