Published by William Morrow
Publication date: February 2nd 2016
M.M. (Mimi) Banning is a southern college drop-out who writes a novel at age 20 that wins the Pulitzer and sells millions of copies, after which time she withdraws from the world, never to write again. Sound familiar? (Hint: Harper Lee). All right, so it is, but from that single point author Julia Claiborne Johnson spins an exuberant tale of snark and intelligence in Be Frank With Me. It seems that after two decades, Mimi is working on another book, but cannot complete it without the rest of her life being managed so she can write. The rest of her life being, her nine-year-old son Frank, and any and all interaction with the outside world. Enter Alice, the novel’s narrator and assistant to Mimi’s editor, Isaac. She is chosen to go out to L.A. where Mimi lives in a gorgeous modern hilltop home and take over everything in her life that does not involve writing to ensure she finishes the book. A steady dependable young woman she relishes the opportunity to interact with an author of Mimi’s stature and how difficult can a little boy be?
Ah, Frank. He is a handsome boy who chooses to dress like the actors in the black and white movies that obsess him. He is dapper and loves a tuxedo and top hat—as everyday wear. He is bright, with a photographic memory and knowledge on wildly esoteric subjects. Sadly, it’s not all whimsy and fun taking care of Frank. For as much charming quirkiness as Johnson gives him, she does not make light of what is likely Asperger’s Syndrome. He cannot stand to be touched, to have any of his things touched, is without any emotional affect and does not understand humor. These are not minor quirks, if anything goes against his carefully constructed world he falls flat to the ground and lies rigidly, eyes closed, hands clenched until he can reset himself. For Alice, it is a minefield trying to form a relationship with a child while needing to remember everything that may set him off. Her nervousness and compassion are palpable.
Be Frank With Me could have ended up as camp with an out-of-control weird child, a reclusive abusive writer and a hapless ingénue who is stuck between them and her kindly old-fashioned boss. Stereotypes galore and yet, Johnson goes nowhere near these tropes. Instead she infuses the novel with genuine emotion. Especially when it comes to Frank whose vocabulary and chatter can be funny until it hurts.
“I met Fiona once, too. I heard that her injury came about due to a surfeit of imagination and then her name was so lovely and full of promise that I decided I really ought to introduce myself. I was terribly frightened at the thought of doing that but I hoped we might be friends so I was brave. But as it turned out she was just like all the others.”
Fiona being a girl he previously told Alice was his best friend. It is these kinds of little details that keep Be Frank With Me grounded. In filling in the backstory Johnson quietly imprints feelings into the flesh of each character. Yes, Mimi is a difficult and unpleasant woman, but one who loves her son to the point of sacrificing her career. For each character in Be Frank With Me there is more than meets the eye and ultimately, it gives the novel heart with its humor.