For those who carry a bookshelf with them on-the-go, Amazon releases a variety of e-books monthly for $3.99 or less. I’m here to discover narratives written by female authors and let you know if they’re worth storing on your virtual bookshelf.
If you’re anything like me, a person who enjoys reading about writing – its trials and tribulations – and discovering exceptionally inquisitive characters, then it’s likely that you’ll enjoy Julia Claiborne Johnson’s Be Frank With Me: A Novel. Novels such as this one are the kind you contemplate from afar, peering at its elements as you would admire a painting at an art gallery, and being okay with a “do not touch” limitation between you and the artwork. In other words, reading Be Frank With Me was simply enough – an art for art’s sake kind of piece – that a literary review couldn’t give justice to (but will try to nonetheless).
Johnson’s novel is narrated by Alice Whitley, a 24-year-old New York publishing assistant who was given instructions to keep M. M. Banning on track of producing her second novel. Banning’s first novel called Pitched, written thirty years prior, became a literary masterpiece when it hit bookshelves and an instant reading requirement on every high school curriculum. Since then, Banning set up camp in Los Angeles where she never published again – that was until she fell broke and needed an income to support herself and her 9-year-old son Frank. Isaac Vargas, Whitley’s publisher, shipped Whitley to Banning’s gated Bel Air home where she would keep Frank busy while his mother locked herself away in her office, typing vigorously on her typewriter. Although much of Whitley’s purpose for being at the Banning household was to observe the coming together of the new manuscript, Whitley spent the majority of her days occupied with Frank (emotionally and intellectually) and never witnessed the physical manuscript – nor would Banning’s enigmatic character give her the satisfaction of seeing it.
As for the novelist’s son, his unusual character is unlike any 9-year-old you’d ever have the pleasure to encounter. Like many of the Amazon reviews, I, too, was mesmerized by the extreme intelligence of M. M. Banning’s son who often reminded Whitley of his rare IQ that surpasses 99.7% of the population. Wearing tailcoats, scarves, suspenders, masks of Comedy and Tragedy cuff links and bow ties, Frank is a relic from the old Hollywood era with a brain like that of an encyclopedia. Although Whitley often describes her 9-year-old pal as characters from vintage, black and white films, Frank reminded me of a young Sheldon Cooper who expresses the same confusion for humour, sarcasm, interpersonal relationships, and social skills that he simply can’t grasp – unless it’s laid out logically. For children like Frank, however, blending in isn’t a priority as much as it’s a mandatory expectation from others – especially at school. Much like his mother, Frank lives a solitary life who rarely leaves his home unless it’s to visit his psychiatrist. While Whitley obliges to learn new things everyday from Frank, she doesn’t quite realize the impact she has on him and his mother that slowly unravels throughout the novel. Whitley’s time in Bel Air becomes much more influential than expected. She finds a love interest, develops deep-rooted friendships, and comes to understand the history of the literary genius and her son who once made Whitley feel like a ghost-like presence, and who then made her fathom her remarkable purpose.
Aside from its plot, Be Frank With Me is eloquently written, funny, and surprises you with a handful of “aha” moments. Johnson’s construction of character development is admirable simply for her ability to capture depth in detail. As for the not-so-pleased reviews, many readers believe that the novel ended abruptly and that other relationships (like that of Banning and Whitley) weren’t fleshed out where they could’ve been. At first I agreed with the criticism on the ending, I didn’t expect it to be over with as soon as it was. However, giving more thought to it, shaping a satisfying ending would work against the plot. Frank wasn’t a typical 9-year-old boy, and what Whitley uncovered about Ms. Banning, along with her surviving manuscript, was anything but ordinary. It’s possible Johnson wanted to rip the band-aid off before the narrative was brought back to health in order for it to heal on its own–which then gets placed on the reader, and whether or not it heals how it’s supposed to is subjective. As for Whitley’s focused observations of Frank, I enjoyed them so much that, yes, the novel could be considered unbalanced and yet that’s exactly why I would read it again. The hyper-focus of his character captured Whitley’s and every other characters fascination for him. If you’ve watched James McAvoy’s performance in Split, then you’ll know what I mean. To be frank, I didn’t feel as if I needed a variety of thoughts or explanations from different characters to be satisfied with this particular narrative. Frank is a novel all in himself, one that’s kept secret and sacred in a treasure box.
Currently, the Kindle Edition is available on Amazon for $12.22 (with a 4.5 star rating) however I managed to scoop it up last week for only $2.25 – which, after reading it, almost feels like I stole it. You could test your patience and wait for Amazon to gift you with a deal, or you could spend an extra $9.97 to read it a.s.a.p (pssst – it’s worth it).