Today we are traveling to Bel Air.
Some things in life are just plain pleasant. Like playing with a room full of puppies or watching the movie Amélie for the first time. And this book, it was just plain pleasant.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was always about pleasant things. This book was one of the rare pieces of literature that manages to straddle the line between deeply tragic and trite romp and come up with the perfect blend. It’s best not to take this one too seriously, which works because this book never feels like it takes itself too seriously.
When reclusive novelist M.M. Banning loses all her money to a crooked accountant, it becomes clear that she must write a new book, years after she produced the great American novel and never published again. Enter Alice Whitley, sent from New York to Banning’s Bel Air mansion ostensibly to transfer typewritten pages to computer. However, it’s Banning’s young son Frank that becomes Alice’s main responsibility. Frank, who clearly lands somewhere on the autism spectrum though it’s never addressed or spelled out fully, is unique. He is a bright and literal child with a penchant for old timey “gentleman’s wear” and a flair for the dramatic, culled directly from his love of films from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Let me just state out front that if I ever have a child and he doesn’t turn out like many elements of Frank, I will be disappointed. His clothing and ability to quote films at the drop of a hat were fully charming. Not to mention his nearly encyclopedic capacity for useless facts. He’s a delightful child to the people who know him. But then, not that many people know him. Because Frank does not like new faces, he doesn’t like disruptions to his routine, and he doesn’t get along with other children, because Frank is “weird”. Much of the time, while reading, this seems okay because Frank marches to the beat of his own drummer and is charming. But there were sections of this novel where it was downright tragic. A segment where a new principle arrives at his school with his own ideas of how to handle a “disruptive” child such a Frank is particularly maddening.
While Frank is the central character of the book, the character is was named after, but he is not the narrator. Which is probably a small blessing, despite how much I adored him. The protagonist of this novel is Alice, a girl from New York, by way of Nebraska. Out of all the colorful characters in this book Alice is by far the least so. Like the literary Alice before her, our protagonist is there to absorb her surroundings, to witness the goings on, but to stand outside of it. Our guide, if you will, because this book is largely character driven.
Mimi, the name Banning goes by on a day to day basis, is impressively fully formed. She loves her son more than anything, but can get frustrated. She is also haunted by some events of her past which lead directly into her writing her famous book, after which she never published another word. Her relationship with Alice is contentious, but mostly because it seems like she feels jealousy over Alice’s perceived ability to do things easily, which Mimi can not. But Mimi is absent from much of the book, since her absence is the impetus for the novel in the first place. She is a difficult character, and it would be easy to judge her by some of her less flattering scenes. But she is a much more complex character than that.
Then there is Xander, Frank’s “piano teacher and itinerant male role model”, a charming man. But, like many charming men, he’s a complete deadbeat. Throughout the novel Xander’s name weaves in and out of the narrative. When he finally appears in the flesh Alice is as charmed as everyone else, even though I immediately wondered why? He’s not a bad guy, but he’s not nearly as great as everyone seems to think he is.
This collection of odd, temperamental characters form a sort of family. A strange and often dysfunctional family, but a family none the less. The book is not perfect, there were several choices that were a little much or in some cases typical. This is a book best read with a light heart. Often the plot follows an improbable line of events orchestrated for a specific outcome. But it is a charming tale about charming people that don’t quite fit in with the world around them. And while it’s often considered the opposite, here their oddness is often perceived as positive.
Something that I enjoyed was that this novel managed to avoid most of the cliches that inevitably appear in books about children and adults. While it’s certain that Frank teaches Alice quite a lot, he does not fundamentally change her life. In the end the reader can surmise that Alice is better for having known Frank, and that maybe Frank is a little better for having known Alice, but they are not radically changed from start to finish. These people are who they are, but they do find ways to fit into each others lives and find affection there.
Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson is available now from William Morrow