Different is just...different.
It would be so easy to say this book is about a boy "somewhere on the spectrum." Or it would be easy to say that this is a book about a publisher's assistant-turned-nanny who shows up and influences the lives of her employer and charge - a modern-day Mary Poppins. Because a reclusive author and her eccentric son, Frank, command and drive the story. However, this book is really about a young woman who, for a time, is part of a family and lifestyle outside of anything she has ever known and is forever changed from the experience. Author M.M. "Mimi" Banning has had one famously successful novel in her...entire career. Finding herself desperate for money, she is now on a hurried deadline to finish a second book, and to help expedite the process her publisher sends his assistant out to help "in whatever way necessary." When Alice Whitley arrives at the Banning mansion, she’s put to work right away—as a full-time companion to Frank.
Frank is irresistibly charming. He is whip-smart, curious about everything he comes across, beautiful, funny, delicate, particular and trapped in the wrong time period (he takes his style from 1930's movies and the day he is forced to wear a t-shirt to school is one of the more heartbreaking chapters in the book). I mention above that it would be easy to say Frank is "somewhere on the spectrum" - which has become such a common way to refer to children who are a bit...odd. Just like a decade ago these kids would readily be diagnosed with ADHD. And while both of these disorders are very real medical conditions (I am not hear to debate diagnoses), in this case, all we know about Frank is that he is eccentric. Unconventional. Quirky. Different. And being different - combined with his reclusive mother trying desperately to keep them out of not just the spotlight, but any light - means he is also lonely. I dare anyone's heart to not feel with this kid every step of the way.
However, in the end, this is Alice's story. While for most of the book she seems the passive protagonist, a visitor in the lives of these people, observing and doing her best to help; it turns out she is the one who is most affected as events unfold. There's a touch of Elizabeth Bennet in Alice as she enters the world of the Bannings: she is so confident that she will be the one to help these people achieve the best versions of themselves. But as the book progresses, she comes to realize that she is not yet the best version of herself. Rather than be an all-knowing and guiding influence on Mimi and Frank, Alice comes to see she has much to still learn.
There's a captivating element of intrigue in Be Frank With Me - as Alice immerses herself in the lives of the Bannings, she is fascinated by the mysteries behind Mimi's past, Frank's absent father, the piano teacher who seems to appear and disappear with the changes in the weather, the publisher-author relationship and whether or not the continually clacking typewriter will ever produce new pages. As she becomes increasingly determined to discover answers, so do we. Ms. Johnson has done a beautiful job weaving together a handful of interesting and quirky characters in an incredibly charming story that shows how different is not wrong. Just different.
by Julia Claiborne Johnson
Audiobooked while painting this set: