by Julia Claiborne Johnson
William Morrow Paperbacks
September 6, 2016
Alice was a not-so-recent graduate who majored in accounting, but had been working in a number of different non-accounting jobs before fully committing to the profession. She was working in New York city for Mr. Vargas, an editor, at a publishing house. Mr. Vargas volunteered dependable, sensible, midwesterner Alice as a personal assistant to one of his writers. The writer happened to be the fanatically followed M. M. Banning, whose one and only novel was published decades earlier. One caveat, Alice would be moving to Los Angeles to live with the reclusive author and her young son as the author is under deadline to write a second book (or go bankrupt).
Alice accepts the assignment from the boss she respects, and arrives in LA to find herself in the midst of chaos. M. M. Banning, or Mimi for short, is super hostile because she has to actually write another book, and is also upset that the book takes her away from the love of her life, her young son, Frank. Julia Claiborne Johnson introduces her readers to some eccentric characters in Be Frank With Me. I relished reading about these characters from smart, steady Alice’s viewpoint. I was amazed at how Alice adjusted to the moody Mimi and funny (strange, not haha) Frank, who is clearly somewhere on some spectrum. Frank is a sartorial superstar, dressing like the movie characters of his favorite movies. This kid is knowledgeable about all things Hollywood and film and anything else that piques his interest. He loves to share his film and any other extraneous knowledge he deigns Alice to know.
Besides some school employees, Alice’s only real friend and relationship in LA is with Xander, Mimi’s confidante and handyman who stands in as a father figure to Frank, since Frank’s father is absent from the scene. Clearly, Frank and Xander have an extraordinary relationship. Frank might be too much for some readers (or hit too close to home for others), but I enjoyed his nonstop ADHD/some form of autism condition, mainly due to the Ms. Johnson’s writing. Ms. Johnson never gives a definitive diagnosis, but this magnetic and frustrating child was fun to read and probably fun to write. Alice and Frank bond (as well as Frank can bond with someone so foreign to his world) and they have trials and tribulations and adventures while Mimi shuts herself away to type the next big great American novel. Mimi reminded me of Harper Lee, and Frank a composite of all three children in Lee’s famous book, because Mimi had the one book that years later people were still clamoring to meet her and get her to sign their books.
Between Frank’s social and school issues, Xander’s habit of appearing and disappearing, and Mimi’s abrasiveness, Alice has much to tell. Not to give anything away, nothing appears as it seems. I was captivated by the amount of films quoted and explained by young Frank. An appendix at the end of the book shows the films referenced and short recap of each. I enjoyed Be Frank With Me and will read any other books Ms. Johnson writes.
From the publisher:
A sparkling talent makes her fiction debut with this infectious novel that combines the charming pluck of Eloise, the poignant psychological quirks of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and the page-turning spirit of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
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.
Full of heart and countless “only-in-Hollywood” moments, Be Frank with Me is a captivating and unconventional story of an unusual mother and son, and the intrepid young woman who finds herself irresistibly pulled into their unforgettable world.
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