Julia Claiborne Johnson‘s first novel, Be Frank With Me, is the kind of book where “madcap hijinks” take place. It’s meant to be a breezy read, a page turner, the kind of book you sit on the beach with. So, no, this is not great literature. The calamities are not terribly believable. But the book is fun.
M.M. “Mimi” Banning is a literary recluse. Having written her debut novel at the tender age of 19, she became wildly successful and very wealthy. She then proceeded to never published another book. That is, until a Bernie Madoff-type swindler rips her off. Now, to keep a life for herself and her son, she has agreed to write again, provided her agent send her an assistant.
Enter Alice, the narrator of the novel. The twenty-something former Apple genius makes the trip to California, thinking she will be transcribing the next great American novel. Instead, she is shut out by the cantankerous author while Mimi pounds away day after day on a manual typewriter. In the meantime, Alice plays housemaid and sitter to Mimi’s “eccentric,” maddening, and accident prone nine year old son, Frank. They go on adventures together, and as they say, Hilarity ensues. Or at the very least, guffaws germinate.
As the title would suggest, Frank is the star of the show. With a fondness for boater hats, zoot suits, and old Hollywood movies, and armed with a mountain of trivial facts and a monotone voice, Frank is utterly charming, if exhausting. At least to the adults in his life. His “quirks” do make him a target at school. Of course, it doesn’t help that doing something that disturbs him — like, say, touching him without his permission — can send him flat on the ground and stiff as a statue.
It’s pretty clear that Frank falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, though it is never named in the book. And it is both heartening and disturbing to see the people in his life attempt to navigate this. It is admirable that they see him as a person, not a condition. But it is at times disturbing when it is played for laughs.
As for the plot, it’s rather thin. There are two mysteries central to the book: will Mimi finish her new novel? And who is Frank’s father? Neither of those mysteries are nearly enough to hold your attention, however, and the reveal of the latter is mostly a nothingburger. But this is a book about the characters, as well as the pratfalls and merry misadventures in which they find themselves. Don’t take it too seriously, and you’ll enjoy the ride.