Unabridged Audiobook, 8 hrs, 37 mins.
Read: January 16-22, 2020
A few decades ago, M. M. Banning took the literary world by storm with her first (and, so far, only) novel, married a movie star just before his career died, and then vanished from the public eye. Her novel is still imposed upon students throughout the country/taught in High School.
Banning’s recently hit some financial woes and has reluctantly contracted with her publisher to produce a second novel. To help Banning, her editor sends his personal assistant, Alice, out to L.A. to live with her, digitize her pages, do some minor cleaning, and help out with Banning’s son, Frank.
Alice quickly learns that there’ll be no discussion of (much less seeing and/or digitizing) the book’s progress, but essentially she’ll be Frank’s caretaker, freeing Banning to work on the novel.
The thing is, Frank’s . . . um, a handful. The word “Autism” is never used (I’m 97% sure), nor is any other diagnostic term. But I’d be willing to bet he’s on the spectrum somewhere—think Don Tillman (from the Rosie books). He has a lack of affect, trouble sleeping, an almost encyclopedic knowledge of classic Hollywood films (1930s-60s, let’s say)—which is where all his slang and fashion sense comes from, an amazing memory for things outside of films, and no sense of humor. Frank’s social circle consists of his mother, his school’s secretary (he eats lunch in her office and talks movies with her), his therapist, and a piano teacher/handyman who sporadically appears at the house. How Banning made it through the first nine years of his life is beyond Alice’s comprehension, and she’s not sure how she’ll survive however long it’ll take Frank’s mother to write her book.
Banning herself is pretty socially awkward (whether this is due to constant exposure to Frank, hiding from the rabid public, or just the way she’s been her whole life) and rarely treats Alice like anything but a pest. This whole endeavor is a real trial for Alice, who handles it fairly well (better than I would have, I can say with a great deal of certainty).
The novel is essentially about Alice trying to navigate the mine-field that is dealing with Banning and struggling to connect with Frank and help him develop a social skill or three.
I enjoyed Frank’s character—he’s like Bernadette Fox without the dangerous wit (in a way, so is his mother) mixed with the aforementioned Don Tillman. Banning herself grates a little bit, but I’m almost positive she’s supposed to. Alice is a strong character, as well—she’s not sure what her role is supposed to be, but she keeps trying to do what’s needed. Her response to the imposed social isolation is both realistic, understandable and relatable. I really enjoyed spending time with Alice and Frank, particularly once Frank warmed a little to her.
There’s a good deal of foreshadowing throughout the book to a calamitous event, and once it happens the novel resolves fairly quickly. I don’t think the novel concludes as much as it stops, and that bothered me (it still does, actually)—I’d prefer a better sense of what will happen to any of the characters after the book ends (whether one day, one year, or a decade after—I’m clueless all around).
Gilbert’s narration was impressive—it’d be impressive if only for her delivery of Frank’s dialogue. She perfectly grasps his lack of affect, patterns (and speed) of speech, as well as the ineffable charm that’s part of his character.
Be Frank With Me is a charming novel that faltered a little at the end, but the pleasures of the journey was still worth the time. I’ll keep my eyes out for something else by both Johnson and Gilbert and will gladly give them another try. I expect most readers will enjoy their time with Frank and Alice (and many won’t agree with me about the ending).
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