Audio review: Actress captures essence of woman and autistic child at center of novel

(Published in the News and Observer, October 1, 2017)

Audios provide an amazing escape from unrelenting sad-bad news, especially those with wit and humor. There’s plenty of both in Julia Claiborne Johnson’s “Be Frank With Me” (book from HarperCollins; audio from Harper Audio) and those qualities are accented in Tavia Gilbert’s spectacular narration.

Gilbert reads the first-person tale written from the viewpoint of character Alice Whitley, a New York publishing house assistant. Alice is sent by her boss to aid Mimi Banning, a famous recluse and author of an award-winning book that is still selling millions of copies 30 years after publication. Think Harper Lee, if Harper Lee had a 9-year-old son. Alice expects to be a writing assistant but instead becomes a nanny-companion-driver for Frank, Mimi’s high-functioning autistic child.

The plot is fast-moving. Gilbert portrays both Alice and Frank, shifting with ease to represent their lively conversation while capturing the humor, tension or tenderness of their relationship. Her representation is so convincing that often it’s hard to remember that just one actress is juggling these very different roles.

Frank is one of the most intriguing characters ever invented. He knows everything from the national dance in the Dominican Republic to minutia about 1930s movie stars. He loves replicating the dazzling dapper dress code of these famous celebrities. Yet Frank knows nothing about distinguishing the literal from the figurative. After multiple comedic communication failures, for example, Alice realizes she must key Frank into more whimsical moods and joking moments with the code phrase “knock, knock.” This refrain reappears periodically, becoming a droll story thread.

“Being with Frank” presents a back-and-forth, up-and-down, moment-to-moment reality. There’s laughter in one moment and sadness the next; compassion can be undone by frustration. Alice is always encouraging, though Gilbert often expresses the strain showing through her nurture. Her delivery of Frank’s dialogue is always deadpan and flat, seldom is there emotion in his tone. Gilbert replicates the range and the nuances of Alice’s responses so palpably, listeners will feel the emotions. Frank is brilliant and imaginative, and Alice and listeners melt with warmth for his quirky combination of knowledge and innocence. But there are times when Frank’s constant recitations of facts annoy and his grating tone provokes the frustration of Alice (and listeners).

Both author and reader have commented on their collaborative efforts. Gilbert, a seasoned narrator, reflects on how she was required to “be expressive with timing and pacing for a character who doesn’t do musicality or color.” Johnson, the author, is a Southerner raised on oral tradition. She had imagined her book being read aloud, just not by her. “When my publishers asked if I wanted to read the audio book edition, I said no before they could finish the sentence. Tavia Gilbert nailed it,” Johnson said. “I may crib from her delivery when I have to read my book aloud myself.”

“Be Frank With Me”

By Julia Claiborne Johnson

Book from HarperCollins; audio from Harper Audio

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