I’m doing this thing where I’m reading debuts. I’m doing it because I’m trying to write my own first novel, and it seems like a good idea to read the first novels of other people. You know, the novels of people who’ve actually finished the daunting project of writing a whole book. That’s how I came to read Julia Claiborne Johnson’s comedy Be Frank With Me. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty charming. And she finished it!
Here are the details:
Alice Whitely, a plucky Pollyanna/literary agency assistant, gets deployed to L.A.. Her task: provide hand-holding and life management for M.M. Banning (aka Mimi Gillespie), a reclusive and eccentric author who hasn’t written anything in thirty years. That’s thirty years since dropping a gigantic hit – Pitched, a baseball story that’s still required reading in every middle school in the United States – on the book world when she was just 19. While Alice thinks her primary task will be to transcribe Mimi’s pages (naturally, the author stubbornly bangs away on a typewriter, rather than connecting to Wifi), she quickly becomes the primary caregiver for Mimi’s son, Frank. The kid is a 9 year-old whose 1930s-inspired wardrobe has to be special ordered. He’s “smarter than 99.7% of the population” and pretty much unable to function because of it. Xander, a Julliard drop-out/handyman and Isaac Vargas, Mimi’s long-time editor, round out the cast of the novel.
I think it must be really hard to write an odd, precocious child as a main character. It seems especially hard if the reader is supposed to adore said child. This novel’s atypical kid has idiosyncratic speech patterns and a lot of trouble connecting to people, including Alice. In fact, for the first several weeks she’s caring for him, Frank has to write her name in Sharpie on his hand in order to remember it. Still, Alice becomes unconditionally devoted to Frank, so much that’s she’s willing to put up with any amount of mistreatment from Mimi to continue her post.
I guess what I’m saying is that Alice and Frank’s relationship didn’t quite ring true to me. Although I could tell that Johnson really wanted me to love Frank by the end, I just couldn’t. Now that I’m thinking of it, none of the characters quite seemed 3-D. Everybody became simplified and/or exaggerated, and their motivations clouded. Still, the plot intrigues, and I felt invested enough to see the novel through.
Tavia Gilbert’s narration is excellent. Not all narrators can do this convincingly, but Gilbert perfects a voice for each character, including Frank’s particular monotone and Alice’s breathy singsong. It’s truly a performance, and not just a reading. Gilbert conveyed Johnson’s very best intentions – that this be a comedy wherein the characters, in spite of themselves, become mutually interdependent. A quick search on Audible turns up 426 (!) audiobooks read by Ms. Gilbert – I’ll be inclined to choose another.
The Bottom Line
This is a pleasant read. The plot mirrors literary news of recluses J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee that any English major likely finds attractive. When I finished listening, I gave it a comfortable three stars.
My advice now is just not to think too hard about it.