I approached Be Frank With Me, by Julia Claiborne Johnson, with some trepidation. After all, it was a debut novel in which the title character is 9 years old. Still, it was being compared to Where’d You Go, Bernadette – a book by Maria Semple – that I also approached with trepidation, and that book turned out to be one of my favorite books ever. So I dug in. I’m still patting myself on my back for my great decision.
Alice Whitley is given an unusual assignment by the publisher for whom she works. She is to become the personal assistant to writer M.M. Banning (called Mimi), who is world-famous for a classic book she wrote when she was a young adult, but she hasn’t written a book since. She lives as a recluse of sorts with her 9-year-old son, Frank.
But the unconventional writer lost her fortune in a Ponzi scheme, and now she is forced to write another novel to pay her bills. Alice will handle her affairs and keep her on target while she writes. One of her main assignments is to take care of Frank.
Frank is not your ordinary 9-year-old. He has a photographic memory, he dresses like he is a movie star straight out of the 30s and 40s, and he has no filter. He says what he thinks and he thinks what he says. He is clearly a genius. While the author never even suggests that he is autistic, it’s what obviously comes to the reader’s mind.
But eccentric though he might be, that same reader will be unable to not fall in love with this child. He is innocent and wise beyond his years. He loves his mother and Mimi loves him right back. It is a sweet – if odd – relationship.
Alice’s fondness for Frank grows throughout the book, and she sets out to learn the secrets in Mimi’s (and therefore, Frank’s) past. Who is Frank’s father? Is it Xander, the odd fellow who shows up on occasion and gives Frank piano lessons? And what has made Mimi not write for so many years?
Like Alice, everyone who reads this book will fall in love with Frank. He is a character I will never forget. I hope Julia Claiborne Johnson doesn’t wait decades to write her next book as did Mimi because I am eagerly awaiting her next book.