A sparkling talent makes her fiction debut with this infectious novel that combines the charming pluck of Eloise, the poignant psychological quirks of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and the pause-resisting spirit of Where'd You Go, Bernadette.
Reclusive literary legend M. M. "Mimi" Banning has been holed up in her Bel Air mansion for years. But after falling prey to a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme, she's flat broke. Now Mimi must write a new book for the first time in decades, and to ensure the timely delivery of her manuscript, her New York publisher sends an assistant to monitor her progress. The prickly Mimi reluctantly complies - with a few stipulations: no Ivy Leaguers or English majors. Must drive, cook, tidy. Computer whiz. Good with kids. Quiet, discreet, sane.
When Alice Whitley arrives at the Banning mansion, she's put to work right away - as a full-time companion to Frank, the writer's eccentric nine-year-old, a boy with the wit of Noel Coward, the wardrobe of a 1930s movie star, and very little in common with his fellow fourth graders.
As she slowly gets to know Frank, Alice becomes consumed with finding out who Frank's father is, how his gorgeous "piano teacher and itinerant male role model", Xander, fits in to the Banning family equation - and whether Mimi will ever finish that book.
Full of heart and countless "only in Hollywood" moments, Be Frank with Me is a captivating and unconventional story of an unusual mother and son and the intrepid young woman who finds herself irresistibly pulled into their unforgettable world.
©2016 Julia Claiborne Johnson (P)2016 HarperCollins Publishers
"Be prepared to put your life on hold once you start this audiobook.... [Narrator Tavia] Gilbert nails the rhythm of Frank's unique speech pattern while instilling his dialogue with charm and innocence. She transitions so seamlessly between Alice and Frank that listeners may forget there's only one narrator. Don't miss this outstanding production." (AudioFile)
I don't review every book--only books I feel strongly about--hence the many 4-5 star vs 1-2 star reviews. Just my opinions--hope they help.
First, Gilbert did a fantastic job with the narration for this book. She was amazing. Midway through the--I can't say reading--I have to say performance--I had to remind myself that it was just one person voicing all the characters. Just perfect.
I found myself smiling as I listened. The story is so eccentric, so charming, weird and quirky that I had a hard time not listening every minute. I loved the dialogue, the characters and most of all the interaction between this odd troop of people brought to life by Johnson.
Be aware that this is a happy & positive book overall--but swirls around past failures, mistakes and disasters that the characters try hard to make up for and to set right after the fact. It's often like an old I Love Lucy episode--the harder they try the more things go wrong. Johnson's writing captures the funny side of life--but it isn't all fun and games. Multidimensional, kind, and at times sad. I really enjoyed the book. I might just listen again.
Reading allows me to travel through time; to visit the world's unique and stunning places. To become somebody I am not... It is glorious.
One of my all time favorite books is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. And when I met Frank I was happy to find another sad, unique, odd, charming, sweet and strange child to love. Something inside of me sighed; something inside of me thrilled. I was intensely emotional about this little boy. And as the story unfolded I found myself interested in some of the characters who loved him as well.
However, the last act of this wonderful first effort was all too brief. There was virtually no resolution. My heart aches for Alice. And I am grieving for my own loss of this child in my life. All of that merits a good review, but just a little more - or better yet, a lot more - would put this book in the 5 star range. John Irving is a master. He builds tension, love and story with each word placed perfectly. Ms Johnson could become a master if she gave the reader more of what she already did so well -- more depth to each character, more analysis of the plot and much, much more resolution.
All in all, I found it a wonderful debut and look forward to her sophomore effort.
Like Alice once I got past the flat affect I loved Frank. Mimi not so much. Frank and Alice are so real, all the other characters seemed superfluous. Ms Johnson did a thorough job of Franks character through Alice's eyes.
I would imagine that giving a voice to Frank was difficult. Ms Gilbert did a great job .
As has been noted by almost every professional review -- yes, this is a bit derivative of the Salinger effect, and also a bit improbable, a little anachronistic in more ways than just the wardrobe choices -- but, Be Frank With Me has few comparisons when it comes to originality (the closest might be Where'd You Go, Bernadette), and don't we all need to read a little sweetness at times. It's clever in a fresh way, laugh-out-loud funny in a smart benevolent way, and at the same time there is something reminiscent of the struggling child in all of us and the enduring love of a mother that nudges this a little closer to your heart than true objectivity should. All of that is miraculously achieved without sentimentality or using the character's flaws alone to fuel the story. You never find yourself laughing at this group of oddities, you laugh with the human race and our inherent flaws. OK; I admit some of them are as out of central casting as Greta Garbo, Kirk Douglas, Buster Keaton, or at least a lot of stereotypes you'd expect from the Hollywood backlots.....and also, that feel-good books are not my wheelhouse.
The producers of this audio book cast a near-perfect narrator in Tavia Gilbert. If the advent of talkies could be blamed for the eventual careening careers of several silent super-stars, a poor narrator can instantly doom even the best written words. As wonderful as John Irving writes characters -- I mean I read A Prayer for Owen Meany and fell in love with Irving in 1989 -- Joe Barrett, whom narrated the audible version of that same book in 2009, endeared that poor little boy "with the wrecked voice," "the instrument of my mother's death," Owen, to me and created a place in my heart where Owen still vividly resides (as well as does one of the best opening sentences ever written in any book). Gilbert does a similar job with capturing the nuances of young Frank, who's monotone encyclopedic conversation makes all that is missing from this sweet little guy just scream at you. He also reminded me of another favorite child from a great novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog's twelve-year-old genius, Paloma. The similarities are the intelligence and precocious nature of the child -- which in Frank's case I suspect is more attributed to a case of Tourette's Syndrome than just sheer genius. An excellent choice for a listen.
That said, Johnson's debut novel is a well-written winner, but doesn't exactly cross the finish line as such. At least Mary Poppins was lifted away with her parrot-head-handled umbrella after a job well completed. The family was intact, on track, and the cast was feeding birds, flying kites, and still dancing merrily (albeit dirtily) on the smoke-choked rooftops of London. Meanwhile, Johnson abandons such glorious curtain drops: Alice drives back to NY without ever resolving the antipathy of Mimi; Frank still has to outgrow his serious *quirks,* before his next outfit is chosen for him from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest;" the reclusive and imperious Mimi seems about to have an unwanted meeting with DCFS; and the mysterious Xander will eventual find his philandering charms tarnished by his poverty. Left dangling on the trajectory that Johnson has her characters on (and very soon after the nanny and the agent disappear into the sunset) the story could become just another book capitalizing on Hollyweird. The ending is a little like having a book slammed in your face and leaving you wondering if there's another chapter. It may all be there between the lines, but I wasn't searching for deep innuendo between chuckles, and felt Johnson left us hanging a little too much. But there's probably no where else for these characters to go and still keep us smiling.
My personal little wish for some kind of wrap up wasn't enough to tarnish that 4th star I volleyed with. A great debut: well -written, original, fun, heart-warming. Thoroughly enjoyable, and I'm looking forward to Johnson's next book.
Over and over - this book was captivating. The characters were all outstanding and the narration was superb. I was enchanted by the story and will listen again and again.
Frank was so believable. It was a rare and engaging story with fragile characters all filled with flaws. Loved listening.
All of it - but the end was great for me.
Would absolutely get another book by the author. I loved the narration as well. SOLD!
This book is worth listening to just for the narration by Tavia Gilbert. Her portrayal of the quirky boy, Frank, is outstanding.
The characters are wonderfully engaging. You can't help but love them not despite their idiosyncrasies but rather because of them. The narrator was terrific and especially voiced Frank so beautifully. I hated to have the book end!
Yes - I loved the dialog - the narrator was great - I would love to hear the story again.
Frank of course.
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