Desert Isle Keeper
When Franny Stands Up
If you’re at all familiar with Prime Video’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, you’re probably going to be told that When Franny Stands Up, featuring a young Jewish woman in her twenties making her way in the world of stand-up comedy is a lot like it. But you should put those assumptions to one side. Fans of Midge’s journey will probably like this book’s heroine, but the author adds a huge sprinkle of magic to the brew, delving deep into the joys of comedy and the beauty of family and friendship, creating an entirely different character and an entirely different book, knocking my socks off in the process.
Franny Steinberg comes from a family of funny people who are hiding a lot of pain, but the fact that she’s enamored of the stand-up comedy world is a secret she keeps from them. The news that her brother Leon, drafted into the war, is MIA overseas and presumed dead still hangs over her head.
She’s only sixteen on Christmas Eve 1944 when she spends almost all the cash she has to illicitly witness a set by Boopsie Baxter, a notorious comic with a series of scandalous headlines behind her. Ensconced at the Empire Room of the Palmer Hotel in Chicago, Franny experiences what industry lingo terms A Showstopper – a magical, life-improving gift every female comic may bestow on the female members of her audience, depending on her talent. The least talented comics in the world give their audience members pleasant thoughts; Boopsie’s jokes give women so much joy they orgasm on the spot. To wit, Franny’s experiences her first right there in her seat. She flees the club.
Seven years later, Franny is serving as a bridesmaid at her high school best friend Mary Kate Finnegan’s wedding. She and Mary Kate have drifted apart since graduation, and Franny is at emotional sea. Post-school she’s been unable to find a profession that suits and is uninterested in being a housewife, no matter how many of her well-meaning neighbors try to set her up. She also bears the scars of a horrible secret – Kate’s brother, Peter, seen as a paragon by everyone around him, raped her on her birthday several years earlier. Her brother Leon did return from the war, but has PTSD and is filled with panic whenever he leaves the family home, often breaking down and screaming uncontrollably in public.
As a sort of bachelorette party, Mary Kate sneaks her bridal party out to the women-only Blue Moon Nightclub, where Boopsie is supposed to be appearing. A disaster ensues after she fails to show up for her set and Franny mouths off about her disappointment. After being forced to dance with Peter at the reception the next day, Franny breaks down and retreats back to the Blue Moon for a pick-me-up and to see Boopsie’s next set. Instead, she finds herself auditioning for a spot in the line-up under a stage name and in her bright green bridesmaid dress. She manages to impress the mob-inclined boss of the place, who agrees to give her a shot even though she hasn’t ever had to write her own original material. Realizing she wants to be a comic and find her own Showstopper, Franny clandestinely begins an odyssey which will force her to confront Peter, teach her some hard truths about the comedy business and cause her to explore her own gender presentation, sexuality and the racism and antisemitism around her.
When Franny Stands Up is a wonder of a novel; engrossing, beautiful, powerful. There are a couple of spots where you think it’s going to go one way, such as when Franny figures out her Showstopper, but then it veers in another direction and leaves you quite stunned.
This is Franny’s coming out story – from the shadows of what’s expected of her, and from the traumas that have hurt her. She is bold, funny and honest as she fumbles her way through these changes. Her father and mother are both lovable in different ways, and her complex, traumatized, but still acerbic brother manages to pop out in a colorful way as well.
There are several women and people in the club who fascinate and delight and occasionally aggravate, in a good way. Boopsie, Hal, Gal and Andy each step forward to hinder or aid Franny’s quest and take transformative measures of their own. At the center of it all is Lottie Marcone, mob wife and independent businesswoman, who’s struggling to keep the Blue Moon afloat in the postwar world.
This is not at all a love story, but it is about loving your art, yourself, and your family, found and not. It is the story of comedy in the postwar world. It’s about how racism – a Black family moves in across the street and experiences nonstop threats and even multiple firebombings – forced the Steinbergs to decide between stomaching the overt racism of the Finnegan family and watching in silence and supporting the Averys.
There are maybe a few minor flaws to the book, but not enough to stop me from giving it a straight-up A. When Franny Stands Up is a beautiful peach of a novel, worth sinking into and laughing along with, even if you hurt under your ribs just like Franny.
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Lisa Fernandes is a writer, reviewer and recapper who lives somewhere on the East Coast. Formerly employed by Firefox.org and Next Projection, she also currently contributes to Women Write About Comics. Read her blog at http://thatbouviergirl.blogspot.com/, follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thatbouviergirl or contribute to her Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/MissyvsEvilDead or her Ko-Fi at ko-fi.com/missmelbouvier