|Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: Rebecca Foster|
|Summary: Alice, a young publishing assistant, is sent from New York City to Los Angeles to encourage one-hit wonder M.M. Banning to produce her long-delayed second novel. But when she arrives she discovers that her most pressing duty is keeping an eye on Banning's oddball son, nine-year-old Frank.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 304||Date: August 2017|
|External links: Author's website|
In June 2009 Isaac Vargas sends his assistant, twenty-four-year-old Alice Whitley, to Bel Air, California to help Mimi Gillespie produce her long-awaited second novel. Under the name M.M. Banning, Mimi issued a wildly successful novel back in the 1970s, Pitched, which quickly became a modern classic on every American adolescent's list of assigned reading for school. She's the sort of figure Harper Lee was for decades: a one-hit literary wonder and an infamous recluse. But there's one key difference here: Mimi has a nine-year-old son, Frank.
I doubt you've ever met a character quite like Frank. As the title suggests, this is very much his book; he steals every scene in which he appears. 'My IQ is higher than 99.7 percent of the American public's,' he unabashedly declares to Alice; that's not a boast, just a fact. His obsession is classic cinema, and he spouts trivia about the movies (and about everything else, too) whenever he gets the chance. A natty dresser, he's most often found wearing vintage suits accessorized by a top hat, monocle or aviator goggles. But touch him or any of his possessions and expect a meltdown.
Unsurprisingly, all this makes the poor lad unpopular with his peers, and one of Alice's biggest challenges is to get him back to school in August and come running any time he gets in trouble with bullies or the principal. Meanwhile, she's utterly failing in her central mission of gathering new material from the irritable Mimi, who locks herself in her study. Even Xander, Frank's former piano teacher and now the household's general handyman and 'itinerant male role model,' can't bring Mimi out of her shell for long – though he does catch Alice's eye.
Alice, having been tasked by Mr Vargas with keeping notes on how things go with Mimi, narrates the whole book in the first person. She finds herself caught in a four-person battle of wits – Alice, Mimi, Xander and Frank – inside Mimi's big glass-fronted fishbowl of a house. Though it's set back behind a big wall to deter gawkers, the home is a curious blend of exhibitionism and hermit tendencies, and makes a perfect setting for the power plays of these four quirky characters.
Thanks to the prologue, readers know that there is going to be a fire that lands one of the characters in the hospital, but it's a long and mostly delightful journey getting back to that point. There were a couple of moments when I wondered where this madcap plot could be going; like a screwball comedy, it's centred around Frank's antics and doesn't always seem to have much rhyme or reason. In particular, readers have to wait a long time to find out, along with Alice, whether Mimi is actually going to deliver another book. But the payout is worth waiting for.
I appreciated how, although Frank is clearly on what would be termed the autistic spectrum, Johnson avoids naming his condition. In a Q&A included at the end of this volume, she says that she 'wanted Frank to represent all the brilliant oddballs, real and fictional, diagnosed and undiagnosed.' As Alice says of this little boy she becomes so fond of, there's a 'difference between weird and one-in-a-million,' and Frank is surely the latter. You'll be glad you got to know him.
Further reading suggestion: Alice's job handling a literary eccentric reminded me of My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff. For another fictional picture of autism, try The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon.
You can read more book reviews or buy Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson at Amazon.com.
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