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Excerpt from Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Be Frank With Me

by Julia Claiborne Johnson

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson X
Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2016, 304 pages

    Sep 2016, 256 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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When the airport cab dropped me at the gate I was relieved nobody was around watching with binoculars as I punched in the entry code in the keypad. 21 22 00 0. The gate swung open and I scuttled through, then huffed up the steep driveway with my bags. I stood at the door for a minute enjoying the irony of the word "welcome" worked into the rush doormat at my feet. My mother would have died from the excitement of knowing I was there if it weren't for the inconvenient fact that she was already dead.

"Los Angeles is paradise on earth, Alice," Mr. Vargas had said as he'd scrawled the keypad's code on a Post-it for me back in New York. "You can't blame people for being seduced by it. Have you ever been?"

"Never," I said.

"Everybody should go once."

"How many times have you been?" I asked.

"Once," he said. "Listen, I know Mimi has a reputation for being difficult, but if I weren't fond of her I wouldn't send you. She'll love you if she'll let herself. In the meantime, don't let her scare you off."

I wiped my feet on the mat and squared my shoulders. Don't let her scare you off. I practiced my smile. Businesslike, but with enough warmth to keep me from coming off as too Nurse Ratched. I mumbled lines I'd worked on during my flight. Nobody knows single mother-hood better than I do. It was just me and my mom growing up. . . . No, I'm good, I ate on the plane, thanks. Just a glass of water, I'll get it myself, tell me where. . . . So this must be Frank! Only nine years old? You seem much older.

Little did I know.

I probably stood there longer than I should have, because the recluse herself opened the door before I could ring the bell and demanded, "Who are you? I've been watching you on the security cameras since you came through the gate."

I was so surprised I gasped "M. M. Banning!" like a toddler might squeal "Santa!" if she stumbled on the guy in the red suit and fake beard sneaking a cigarette out back of the mall during his break. To be honest, I'm not sure I would have recognized her if I'd passed her on the street. In the years since that book jacket photo had been taken, her hair had grown out into a grayish-brown ponytail, she'd developed a big furrow between her eyebrows, and her jawline had gone soft. But her eyes were the same fathomless brown, so dark that the iris and pupil seemed one. She still wore glasses and a cardigan, too, except now the cardigan made her look less like a writer than a middle- aged librarian. A vengeful middle-aged librarian brandishing a portable phone.

"You'd better be the girl Isaac Vargas sent," she said, "because I have the police on speed dial."

I WASN"T ALWAYS an M. M. Banning fan.

When I read my mother's battered copy of Pitched for eighth grade English, I confess I didn't see what the fuss was about. "I hate how the guy is just called 'The Pitcher,' " I complained to her. "Why doesn't he have a name?" My mother said she guessed the author did that to make the story feel universal, to help readers imagine the character as their own brother or son. "I don't have a brother or son," I said. "It just makes it easier for me to imagine him as a water jug with a handle." My poor mother. Her favorite book, trashed by her only child. What can I say? Junior High Alice preferred Jay Gatsby, with his million- dollar smile and mansion and all those beautiful shirts.

I reread Pitched as coursework in Twentieth-Century Lit when I was a junior in college, soon after my mother died unexpectedly of undiagnosed heart disease. It was a different book to me then. That time it tore me apart. I confessed in class that I'd cried my eyes out when I finished.

"You realize now," my professor commented drily, "that youth isn't wasted on the young. Literature is."

Excerpted from Be Frank With Me by Spencer Johnson. Copyright © 2016 by Spencer Johnson. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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