Book Review: Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

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Be Frank With Me – Julia Claiborne Johnson (William Morrow, 2016)

I read Be Frank With Me in a couple of days while away on the island. It was a fine vacation read – easy and entertaining. It had been recommended to me by an acquaintance when it first came out and so I was happy to find a secondhand copy recently. It is the kind of innocuous read that I find hard to review; there isn’t anything here offensive or extremely unlikeable but I also have nothing to rave over.

For me, a large part of that is the character of Frank himself. Frank is an eccentric ten-year-old, only child of the reclusive writer M.M. Banning (a sort of female version of J.D. Salinger). When Banning is tasked to finally write a second novel to follow her hit debut, the publisher sends her an assistant. Alice Whitley, our narrator, thinks she will be typing and performing light household duties but her main job turns out to be to take care of Frank and neither Frank nor his mother really want her there. Frank is super smart, has a great memory for facts, and dresses like an old Hollywood film star. Alice is quickly charmed by him and I’m pretty sure the reader is supposed to be too. And herein lies the problem. I find I am not generally won over by precocious children in literature. I didn’t find Frank that funny or charming and I felt hyper aware of how difficult a child like Frank can be to care for day in and day out. (The word autism is never used but it’s pretty clear that Frank falls somewhere on the spectrum.)

In fact, everyone in this book is pretty unlikeable. M.M. Banning is particularly awful, especially to Alice but also to Frank and she never goes through any growth or change in the novel. I kept waiting for a glimmer of a redemptive moment but at the end she was the same as she’d been at the beginning.

Alice herself is mostly kind of boring. She seems to have no life outside of Frank and Banning. She is sent from New York to Los Angeles by her job and doesn’t seem to care that she is stuck there for months on end. She doesn’t mention missing friends in New York, she never seems to leave the house in LA except with or for Frank. She exists entirely to showcase Frank.

As I said, the book is inoffensive and easy to read. Nothing terrible but nothing that is going to have me pushing it into the hands of other readers.

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