Be Frank With Me
I first took note this début novel by Julia Claiborne Johnson after reading Joshilyn Jackson’s very positive review of the story. Since Ms. Jackson is an author whose work I greatly admire, I decided to pick Ms. Johnson’s book up for review. Be Frank With Me is a delightfully charming story, peopled with characters that practically jump out of it and into your heart. Add to this the wonderfully skilled narration by Tavia Gilbert, and you’ve got a definite audiobook winner.
Mimi is a reclusive middle-aged woman who lives in a glass-walled mansion in the hills of California. Some thirty years before our story opens, she wrote a hugely popular book and has been living off the proceeds ever since. She and her nine-year-old son Frank have done quite well together, but when Mimi loses her fortune in a sort of Ponzi scheme, Mimi knows she needs to write another book in order to continue taking care of herself and her son, but she’s not sure how she’ll manage to write and care for Frank at the same time. So she decides to employ an assistant.
Enter Alice Whitley, a twenty-four-year-old New Yorker who currently works for Mimi’s publisher whose boss sends her to California to work for Mimi. Alice is sure this is the perfect job for her as she meets all of Mimi’s requirements. She is not an English major. She is good with computers. She’s willing to cook and clean, and, most importantly, she considers herself to be good with kids. What could possibly go wrong?
Alice isn’t in the house twenty minutes before she realizes just how different this job is going to be from what she imagined. Mimi is prickly and unwelcoming and Frank is unlike any nine-year-old boy Alice has ever seen. It’s obvious neither of them really wants Alice around, but she is determined to persevere.
Frank is definitely the star of the book. Although it’s never clearly stated, it’s obvious he has some form of autism. His mind is filled with facts about music, movies, science and a plethora of other subjects. He dresses in suits and waistcoats, has literally nothing in common with other kids of his age and he dislikes physical contact, unless he’s the one to initiate it. At first, he’s mistrustful of Alice, but the two slowly begin to form a bond
The story is told in the first person from Alice’s point of view, a natural fit for narrator Tavia Gilbert. She brings Alice to life, allowing the listener to see behind her mask of confidence to the uncertain, vulnerable young woman beneath the surface. Ms. Gilbert’s depictions of the rest of the characters are equally adept. Mimi speaks with a slight southern drawl, and Frank is indescribably adorable. The novel doesn’t contain a lot of other characters, but Ms. Gilbert makes everyone who does enter the story stand out. I appreciate narrators who are able to do this. It makes it easy to sit back and enjoy the story without needing to pay attention to dialogue tags.
No review of this book can be complete without some mention of Xander, Frank’s piano teacher and male role model. From their first meeting, Alice is fascinated by the nomadic, free-spirited Xander, and in some ways, she idealizes him, refusing to take note of his flaws until it’s almost too late. I wasn’t sure if she loved him, or if she was seeking to understand more about the life Frank and Mimi led before her arrival. I lean toward the latter, but I could be wrong about that. Ms. Johnson doesn’t spell it out clearly, something that might be a turnoff for some. For me, it illustrates the multi-faceted nature of so many of our relationships.
I would, however, have welcomed a bit more insight into Mimi’s behavior. For a good portion of the book, she refuses to call Alice by her name, calling her Penny instead, and is constantly rude to her, rebuffing her at every turn. She seems to resent her, but we’re never shown why. Her love for Frank is plain to see most of the time, but I struggled a bit with how quickly she let Alice take over in some situations. Basically, she’s a puzzle.
The ending is a bit on the abrupt side and I would have liked an epilogue or something to let us know how things turned out for everyone involved. As it stands, I came away from the book feeling a little cheated.
Be Frank With Me is not perfect, but it’s a strong début novel and was enjoyable enough to make me eager to see what else Ms. Johnson has in store for her readers. And as for Tavia Gilbert, she’s a long-time favorite of mine, so I’ll be on the lookout for more of her stellar narrations.
Breakdown of Grade – Narration: A- Content: B Unabridged. Length 8 hours 37 minutes