BookBrowse Reviews Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

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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

    Paperback:
    Sep 2016, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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Full of "only-in-Hollywood" moments, Be Frank with Me is an unconventional story of an unusual mother and son.

Be Frank With Me is what "Jeopardy!" would look like as a novel. At its center is Frank, the nine-year-old son of M.M. "Mimi" Banning, a Salinger-esque literary notoriety who wrote a wildly popular baseball-flavored novel called Pitched, which also begat an Oscar-winning movie, and who then promptly disappeared from the public eye. She and Frank live – or perhaps, hide – in their Bel Air mansion, as many present-day hangers-on hold vigil outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of Mimi.

Our introduction to Frank comes through Alice, who's been dispatched from New York City to Los Angeles, by her kindly publishing house boss, to essentially babysit Mimi through the writing of her decades-later second novel, which Mimi needs to write, so she can financially recover from a Ponzi-type scheme to which she fell victim. Alice took the assignment because Pitched was her late mother's dearly favorite novel, and because, just like Frank, she never really knew her father, who abandoned her and her mother when she was very young.

But she never expected such a unique bundle. Frank is well on his way to knowing everything about everything. Like the famed Forrest Bounce created in 1985 on Jeopardy!, when Chuck Forrest chose clues at random on the board to deflect his opponents, Frank goes from talking about what should be done if a car isn't driven for months, to how to check someone for brain damage, to why the song "Over the Rainbow" was nearly cut from The Wizard of Oz, to ancient man's original chewing gum. Frank seems as though he was born with a Hollywood screenwriter's quirky imagination; his many outfits for example, such as top hats, leather aviator's cap and goggles, and yachting chinos, are odd and fanciful. His various, wide-ranging interests come from the loneliness he experiences having a mother who locks herself away to write.

While Frank is an incredibly engaging character, Alice, on the other hand, seems to only serve as a conduit for the reader to know the precocious boy. Although Alice does offer some information about herself, and also how she feels about the mostly unreliable Xander, who's the de facto handyman around the Banning mansion, as well as Frank's piano instructor and only real male role model, there's not much there to make the reader all that interested in her.

And while the early pages of the novel fall prey to some lazy phrasing (such as when Frank hits a peach tree over and over with a plastic baseball bat, "...scattering the green midsummer fruit as if the future of the human race depended on it."), there are some compelling moments in the novel. One example is when Alice realizes that it's July 4th only because she's looking out a window of the mansion, high above Los Angeles, and seeing fireworks from different places. The holiday can sometimes be that silent, that solemn, in Los Angeles.

Be Frank With Me is a generally decent first novel, if only because Frank is so remarkable. It's worth being there with him, marveling at what he is, and looking forward to what happens next.

Reviewed by Rory L. Aronsky

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in April 2016, and has been updated for the September 2016 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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