First published in 2016
My rating: 2.5 out of 5
Image from Goodreads
The Short Of It:
Disappointing book that failed to live up to its potential. Unfortunately, I'd say pass on this one.
The Long Of It:
"Be Frank With Me" is a perfect example of a promising premise suffering from poor execution. I was all set to love what I thought would be a charming, funny and poignant story only to encounter a plot that went nowhere and zero character development. At least it was well-written!
Frank is unlike any 9-year-old you've met. His daily attire includes monocles and suit jackets, he has a passion for old movies, and his brilliant mind is a vault of random trivia knowledge. He's also bullied at school and stared at in public, bangs his head and pulls out his hair when he gets frustrated, and can't stand being touched without permission.
Frank's mother is a reclusive prize-winning author who hasn't published a word since her first book decades ago, but now, swindled out of her fortune, she's forced to write a second book (much to her editor's delight!). And Alice, our narrator, is a publishing assistant from Mimi's agency in New York, sent out to Los Angeles to help Mimi with whatever she may need to get the long-awaited novel written. What Mimi needs help with, it turns out, is cooking, cleaning, driving and, above all, care of her incredibly eccentric little boy while she locks herself away in her office to write -- and Alice, a twentysomething hard-working Nebraska native who's trying to find her place in life, is determined to do her best. There's also Xander, who is at once Frank's piano teacher, Mimi's handyman, and a sexy itinerant drifter with a past he won't talk about who comes and goes from their lives without warning.
There's so much potential here to craft a really good story. But the plot felt so stagnant: basically, Alice and Frank have some misadventures while Mimi works on her book. The end. I kept on trudging through versions of the same events repeated over and over, waiting for something big -- significant -- to happen, but it didn't, and I felt there was no point to the story. The only theme I could get from it is that it's ok to be different and that we shouldn't try to change those who are -- a la Frank and his very strange personality -- but that could have been fleshed out in a far more interesting way.
Hand-in-hand with the lack of forward-moving plot, there's no character growth. At the end of the book, Frank is still weird, Mimi is still mean and mysterious, Alice is still boring, and Xander still has the personality of a 15-year-old in a much older body. And because they're so flat, I never felt invested in their lives.
At the end of the book, Alice goes back to New York, and it's presumed that everyone else picks up their daily lives right where they left off. Maybe this is a case where an epilogue would've been appropriate. Does Alice stay in touch with Frank and Mimi? Does Frank go on to become some change-the-world scientist or Jeopardy champion? Does Mimi publish any more books? I also wondered all throughout the story if Frank has Asperger's, but it's never mentioned. So very many intriguing questions were raised during the story, and very few were answered.
I really expected this book to be at least a 4-star read for me, but all the plot flaws make it a miss -- which is a bummer, because I know it could've been so much better, especially since Johnson clearly knows how to write. Unless you really, really like old movie references (a topic I know almost nothing about, which probably hurt me here too), I'd say to skip this one.