Saturday, January 23, 2021

Julia Claiborne Johnson - Be Frank With Me

Reclusive literary legend M. M. “Mimi” Banning has been holed up in her Bel Air mansion for years. But after falling prey to a Bernie Madoff-style ponzi scheme, she’s flat broke. Now Mimi must write a new book for the first time in decades, and to ensure the timely delivery of her manuscript, her New York publisher sends an assistant to monitor her progress. The prickly Mimi reluctantly complies—with a few stipulations: No Ivy-Leaguers or English majors. Must drive, cook, tidy. Computer whiz. Good with kids. Quiet, discreet, sane.
When Alice Whitley arrives at the Banning mansion, she’s put to work right away—as a full-time companion to Frank, the writer’s eccentric nine-year-old, a boy with the wit of Noel Coward, the wardrobe of a 1930s movie star, and very little in common with his fellow fourth-graders.
As she slowly gets to know Frank, Alice becomes consumed with finding out who Frank’s father is, how his gorgeous “piano teacher and itinerant male role model” Xander fits into the Banning family equation—and whether Mimi will ever finish that book.
Full of heart and countless “only-in-Hollywood” moments, Be Frank with Me is a captivating and unconventional story of an unusual mother and son, and the intrepid young woman who finds herself irresistibly pulled into their unforgettable world.

Comment: I had this book in the pile for around four years. I can't remember anymore why I added this to my lists but I assume it was because it would feature a character with autism or some other kind of designation along those lines (since it's never mentioned exactly what the character has). I tend to like these stories because it means the authors have to present those characters in a way the reader can't help but empathize and I'm always looking for that experience.

In this novel, the narrator is Alice, a young New Yorker who travels to California to "assist" author M.M. Bannig while she writes her second book. The first one was a huge hyped success but the author only now is trying to write something else. In order for this to happen, she needs time away from her responsibilities and that's where Alice enters. She will help in the house and with the author's son. Frank is a young boy of nine but despite his prodigious knowledge he isn't that aware of  social rules and boundaries. Therefore he needs constant attention but Alice isn't certain, at first, of how she can help this family. As time goes by, though, doubts on whether the book will ever be finished and on what it means to investigate the life of these people starts to weight in on Alice. Could it be that she is going to be really useful for them?

I was positively surprised by this story. A friend has attempted to read it and found it too weird so my expectations weren't as high as if I hadn't seen her opinion but, thankfully, nothing like trying for ourselves because what works for one might not for someone else and vice-versa.

This is the story of the novelist M.M. Banning and her son but also the story of how important it is to Alice, the character through whom we learn what is happening, that she feels connected with others since she lives a relatively lonely life back home. I think it's easy for the reader to connect with Alice and her doubts as she deals with new situations but also because we all feel a little unsure of ourselves in how we are supposed to face things our of our routines. I think Alice managed superbly.

This is, indeed, not an easy plot to follow at first and all the characters (except Alice) are a little weird. Perhaps "quirky" is a better adjective. It can be a little complicated to understand why the characters behave the way they do and what is it about them that, despite them being a little hard to analyze, they are still captivating to read about. Frank, the child, is different from most kids his age yes and it could be very easy to pinpoint all the supposed messages this book wants to convey on him being different but I think the most interesting part is to see others react to him.

There are some moments where things seem a little confusing but I really liked how the author managed to add/include so much interesting information or random facts about so many subjects through Frank and that is one way to see how his brain behaves and why he is so focused on certain themes. That was more visible in the way he dressed and the little routines he had to perform or that others had to respect and when someone doesn't want to understand... well, let's just say reality shouldn't be just one way or the way of the majority.

While I liked Frank and his often suitable facts for the occasion, I think Alice is the most complex character here and not just because she is the narrator. She comes to a new situation not knowing a lot and she has to adapt. We are supposed to feel empathy with her because she, like us, has to be the voice of sanity in a situation that isn't easy but I think that, ultimately, by getting to know these people and having to be so intimate with what drives and hurts them, she doesn't have any other option but feel something and evolving a little herself because of that experience.

When the story comes to an end, I admit, I felt it was a little bittersweet. Nothing impossible or negative happens but let's just say Alice's job at the house is finally over and with it, the end of the book. I wasn't expecting to feel how I did while Alice goes through the motions of her days but although nothing radical happens, I think the way this book ends will stay with me for a while.

This is a special story, with characters that have their own little self challenges to overcome. It's not easy to be in someone else' shoes and even less to watch and be unable to change anything. I think Alice was a character that embodied these things well and the story, although not too difficult to follow, certainly had its lessons to teach. I think this is a good story ,especially if we think of it as a whole and not just because of the individual elements. However, like I said, Alice certainly is a good narrator to an everyday life we just don't have near us.

Grade: 8/10

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