Adult Book of the Week: Be Frank with Me – Julia Claiborne Johnson

This debut knocks it out of the park! It’s the hilarious, charming, completely delicious story of 9-year-old Frank Banning, an odd-ball autodidact with a love of old Hollywood movies and a tendency to dress like their debonair heroes.

In fact, if I were Frank I would probably ask if you knew that “charming” not only means to delight greatly but to “control or achieve something as if my magic.” That’s what this book does—wins you over as if by magic. Great writing, truly funny, acres and acres of heart. I don’t think I’ve loved a batch of characters as much in a long time.

Frank’s the easiest: this “difficult” kid gives everything 200%. He’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of old movies and those outfits of his lead to some great comedy:

You had to give him credit: He might not bathe or wash his face or brush his teeth without prompting, but Frank could put an outfit together. The high point of my day was seeing Frank emerge from the chrysalis of his closet to unfurl his sartorial wings.…It was mid-January and just cool enough to make his E.F. Hutton suit a seasonally appropriate choice. He was wearing a pair of gold elephant-head cufflinks Mimi had given him for Christmas. The way the tassel on his fez kept time to his step as he merengued across the playground made me feel almost cheerful.”

As winning as Frank is, the secret ingredient to this story is the narrator, a young woman sent from her publishing house to assist a reclusive Salinger-esqe author who is writing a second book because she’s broke. Alice ends up becoming Frank’s ad hoc nanny and inadvertent partner in crime. It’s entirely through her eyes— funny, goodhearted and anything but a sap—that you come to truly love this ragtag family in all its outrageous eccentricity.

Lots of books get compared to Where’d You Go, Bernadette but this one really does have the same droll sense of humor, a dash of social commentary, and wry, generous wisdom about people and their foibles. Other bestsellers also come to mind. For instance Kirkus calls it “The curious incident of where’d you go, Salinger.”

Initial coverage includes USA Today, People and Entertainment Weekly. Additionally, it’s both a LibraryReads and Indie Next Pick. Booksellers have rabidly, joyously embraced this one.

 “Johnson’s magnificently poignant, funny, and wholly original debut goes beyond page-turner status. Readers will race to the next sentence. And the next. Her charming, flawed, quietly courageous characters, each wonderfully different, demand a second reading while we impatiently await the author’s second work.”
Library Journal (starred review)

“Witty dialogue, irresistible characters, and a touch of mystery make this sweet debut about a quirky Hollywood family an enjoyable page-turner.”

[T]he rare, hits-me-just-right book I am always hoping to find when browsing: Witty, but never cutesy. Deeply felt, but never sentimental. Peopled with deeply flawed, fully realized characters I cared about. It pulled me in so strongly that I found myself reading in that whole body way that is a rare and luminous pleasure after childhood, so immersed that the phone and the dogs and the kids had to work to pull me out. I loved every minute I spent in Julia Claiborne Johnson’s glass house with her cast of dedicated stone-throwers. This one is special—don’t miss it.”
— Joshilyn Jackson

Be Frank With Me has quickly earned a coveted spot among my top ten. When reclusive novelist Mimi Banning loses her fortune and must quickly write a second novel, her publisher sends a young publicist to oversee the efforts (and make sure their huge investment is secure). Alice Whitley arrives and is put to work as caregiver to Mimi’s eccentric nine-year-old son, Frank, around whom the novel truly revolves. Frank is a diamond in the rough; rarely does a character so complex and moving come along who stays with you. As Alice gets to know Frank and the mysterious characters in his life, she becomes all-consumed with discovering his paternity. Be Frank With Me is captivating, irresistible, moving, heartbreaking, wonderful and utterly unputdownable.”
— Bess Bleyaert, McLean & Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, MI on the Indie Next Shelf Talker.

“We all meet a fantastic someone in our lives who alters us so slightly we don’t realize what’s happened.  If we are lucky, we meet them when we are older–so that we can recognize our treasure–and they are young–so that we will selfishly have them with us for a long time.  Precocious young Frank is such a one.  He’s going to be a life killer in the way that young boys grow up to be lady killers, which is to say, he’ll take life by storm. But we get him first.”
— Charity McMaster, Schuler Books & Music, Grand Rapids, MI

[A] gem. Its originality, lack of pathos or sentimentality, and sheer charm guarantee a wide handsell and word-of-mouth readership. If Mimi totally wimps out as a mother and Xander ends up not showing up at all one of these days, I’ll adopt Frank!”
— Mary Grey James, Parnassus Books, Nashville, TN

“Frank will puzzle you, surprise you, then charm you unlike any other character you’ve ever read. This plucky, fast-paced novel is a funny, heartwarming story of a mother & son that don’t fit in to the world that surrounds them.   flew through pages; having a grand old time learning more than I ever thought I would about old films, long-ago famous actors and Albert Einstein.”
— Shannon Alden, Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, MI

Be Frank With Me (9780062413710) by Julia Claiborne Johnson. $25.99 hardcover. 2/2/16 on sale.

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