Author M. M. “Mimi” Banning wrote a beloved book, married a movie star, moved to Hollywood, and dropped out of the public eye. Some years later, Mimi, who has always been “good with numbers and bad with money”, finds herself in dire financial circumstances. There’s nothing for it: she’s going to have to write a second book.*
To allow Mimi the freedom to write her book in relative peace, Mimi’s publisher sends her a personal assistant, the naive Alice Whitley. Alice’s role is to be a Gal Friday–whatever Mimi needs, Alice will provide: light housework, chauffeur duties, or childcare for Mimi’s nine-year-old son Frank. Be Frank With Me is written from Alice’s perspective, something I think is a mistake as I’ll try to explain below.
Alice is bewildered by her new assignment: Mimi is prickly and pushes back against all forms of assistance that Alice offers. Mimi resents having someone inserted into her ordered existence. Furthermore, Frank is unlike any child Alice has ever met. He is obsessed with Old Hollywood movies and can be described as a “natty dresser”. (The kid wears a cravat.) Frank has fits when Alice touches his things or his person uninvited. He speaks in a flat monotone and steals things like a magpie. In short, Frank is not like other boys.
Slowly, Alice gets drawn into the strange little world of the Bannings, though she never quite gets comfortable. There’s no drama here–Frank isn’t dying of cancer, Mimi isn’t hiding a drug addiction–it’s just a young woman growing close with an odd little boy.
This was not my book. Like Mimi, I found Alice to be irritating and naive. It was an unpleasant experience to have a first person narrative from a person I didn’t like. Alice, honey, get over yourself.
At first glance, Frank’s odd behavior is off-putting, but, like Alice, the reader quickly warms to the sensitive boy. I actually liked Frank, though your response may be different because he comes dangerously close to “plot moppet” territory. However, precocious and peculiar Frank is the male lead of the story rather than a colorful side character.
I have mentioned before that audiobooks are not my preferred method of consuming books, and in this case, the audiobook format was a tangible barrier between me and the story. The narrator’s robotic tone for Frank annoyed me to no end. The stiff cadence was anathema. I might have enjoyed the book more if I hadn’t spent half the time thinking how much the woman’s voice was getting on my nerves. I can openly admit that the narration almost certainly accounts for a large portion of my dislike of the book. I might even have liked Alice without it. Probably not.
Would I recommend the book? I actually cannot see any circumstance when I would. Not because it’s a terrible book, but more that there isn’t anything in particular I can hook into that would prompt me to recommend it. If Frank were explicitly described as being on the autism spectrum, I might keep it in mind as a book about a weird kid, but without that, it’s just a story. A well-written story, but unremarkable as stories go.
*Yeah, Mimi is a bit Harper Lee-ish. No one denies this. But it’s a thin comparison.