Julia Claiborne Johnson

Be Frank With Me

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Be Frank With Me Summary

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Be Frank With Me is Julia Claiborne Johnson’s 2016 debut novel. The story follows young protagonist Alice who is sent to assist legendary novelist M.M. “Mimi” Banning in Los Angeles as she attempts to finish her latest novel. Little does Alice know she will become a nanny to Banning’s peculiar son, Frank, who leads her on a journey she could not have predicted. Johnson says Frank was inspired by the character of Boo Radley’s undefined autism, and by having children of her own.

Alice has finally landed a decent job with benefits at a publishing house when her boss, Mr. Isaac Vargas, assigns her a surprise mission. Alice is told she must travel from New York City to Los Angeles to assist M.M. Banning, the esteemed author of a famous book called Pitched. Banning, whose real name is Mimi, has run into some financial troubles and needs to write another novel in order to earn money again. She has a son named Frank, and does not have time to take care of him while she writes.

Alice admits she never quite loved the book Pitched, even though her mother loved it when she was a girl. When she arrives in Bel Air, she nervously approaches Mimi’s house and is greeted by a hostile Mimi threatening to call the police. Alice calms Mimi by proving she is the girl that Mr. Vargas sent. Once Mimi realizes Alice is trustworthy, she lets her into her giant house, which is made out of glass. Alice notices that every wall in the house is covered in curtains.

The two women try and make small talk, but Mimi is not very personable, so Alice ends up leading the conversation. Mimi introduces Alice to her son, Frank, who is hyperactive and easily distracted, yet has an extremely large vocabulary for a nine-year-old boy. He dresses in tailcoats and breeches as if he is a character in a 1930s film. When Mimi complains that their sliding-glass door is broken, she quickly explains to Alice that Frank broke it by ramming his head into it.

Alice soon learns that Frank has a strict set of rules for her to follow in order to get along with him. Frank is allowed to be affectionate with Alice and hold her hand, but Alice is not allowed to reciprocate. She is also not allowed to play his piano under any circumstances. She quickly learns that Frank sleepwalks at night and sometimes carries a knife with him when he does it. When Alice relays this information to Mr. Vargas, he tells her to start taking notes.

After getting to know Frank a bit better, Alice finally decides they should venture outside of the house together. Mimi and Frank both tell her this is a bad idea and she has to prove to them that she will not get lost. While on their outing, Alice learns that Frank has an elusive piano teacher named Xander who gives him piano lessons periodically. Alice has trouble believing that Xander is real, but when they return home, Frank shows Alice a room above the garage containing hundreds of postcards from Xander. Alice dubs the room the “Barbie Dream House.” Frank, who has a keen sense of observation, notices that he cannot hear his mother typing anymore and goes upstairs to find her. When he sees her he runs at her and accidentally pushes her into the sliding-glass door. After this incident, Mimi and Alice start taking Frank to see a psychotherapist.

As Mimi recovers and digs deeper into her novel, Alice and Frank start doing the things he and Mimi used to do together. They go to a museum and Frank is convinced that Xander is there. Alice searches for Xander to humor Frank, but Xander never shows up. Later that night when they return home, Alice meets the handsome and charismatic Xander for the first time when she discovers him sleeping in her bed.

Frank resumes his lessons with Xander, but he also has to return to school. On his first day back, Frank stages a kind of protest in the hallway by lying down on the floor and blocking the flow of student traffic. Frank has few friends at school and the administration does not like him, either. Alice, however, is encouraged by Frank’s alleged friendship with a girl named Fiona.

Meanwhile, Alice starts writing a book about her experience with the family. Mimi hasn’t shown Alice her novel yet, and Alice starts to worry. Xander and Alice form a friendship and then start having an affair, and he tells her more about Mimi’s past. Mimi’s first novel, he tells her, was inspired by her brother’s suicide when he was in college. Xander has a similarly tragic past and admits to killing his own sister in a car accident.

Eventually, Mimi and Alice learn that Fiona, who Frank had only imagined to be his friend, is actually bullying him. The principal tells Mimi the bullying is her fault because she allows Frank to dress in eccentric outfits. Mimi buys Frank new clothes but the bullying doesn’t stop, and Alice learns that he carries a makeshift weapon to school for protection. After this, Alice and Frank start skipping school regularly together.

On his birthday, Frank accidentally sets the Barbie Dream House and the rest of the house on fire with fireworks. Everyone survives the fire, but Mimi is sent to the hospital. Isaac and Alice want to try and save her book and they are unsure of whether it was destroyed. Mimi mysteriously disappears from the hospital and Isaac flies in from New York to try and assuage the damage. Frank reveals that he saved the book, and gives the manuscript and other writings to Alice and Isaac. Eventually, Isaac and Alice locate Mimi. Alice finishes writing her own book and returns to New York, leaving Frank and Xander behind.