Review: Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

4.5 of 5 stars
Published February 2016

M. M. Banning wrote a novel when she was young. It was a career making top seller but she never wrote another one, instead, becoming a recluse. Now she’s nearly broke and attempting to write a new book and needs help. Her publisher sends Alice to Los Angeles to be her assistant but Alice ends up being a sort of nanny to M. M. aka Mimi’s 9 year old son, Frank. Frank loves classic movies and dresses like his favourite characters from those golden era 1930s movies. Top hat and tails, that sort of thing. He is definitely eccentric, very, very intelligent,  and he clearly shows symptoms of autism or something in that spectrum. This is not spelled out in the story because the author didn’t want to pin Frank down to a diagnosis. Because of him being so different, his classmates reject and bully him. He has very few friends aside from his mother and a family friend, Xander who pops in and out of his life.

Day to day life with Frank is a challenge. Alice is also curious as to the identity of Frank’s father, a fact that Mimi keeps under wraps like she keeps everything else for the most part. Not that it’s really any of Alice’s business but her curiosity burns. In the meantime, Mimi tolerates Alice, but does not use the skills Alice was sent to lend to Mimi including being a personal assistant, computer geek, etc. She’s actually quite rude, secretive and unlikeable when she’s in the picture at all. We really don’t get to know Mimi. Alice and the publisher Isaac Vargas don’t even know for sure if Mimi really is working on the book as she’s locked behind a study door, never allowing Alice to see any of what she’s working on.  She asked for an assistant but doesn’t really seem to want Alice there, though doesn’t make her leave, either. The romantic thread through the story didn’t really seem to fit, either.  Xander is a drifter, committment shy, a bit unreliable and keeps his own secrets.

The story of Alice’s experiences with Frank, Mimi and Xander are enjoyable to read. Frank is a little star and is easily the best character in the book. He sometimes seems old and wise beyond his years but in the moment, he’s a little kid again, scared and anxious. He’s easy to love but exasperating to deal with. Mimi is prickly, independent and aloof. She’s built  a wall around her emotions  over her lifetime, seemingly related to an old family tragedy. Alice often seems mystified as to how she’s managed to get herself into this situation, with frustration being her main emotion most days. I think she needs Frank and Mimi as much as they grow to need her though none of them would admit it. There are ups and downs, laughter and tears. Alice is out of her element a lot of the time and her time with Mimi, Xander and Frank is only finite but she comes away at the end having learned more about herself.

It’s a good story, the characters are not perfect, the dialogue is often amusing, it’s not a nicely wrapped up ending but is still satisfying. Life goes on.

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