Julia Claiborne Johnson’s works are love letters to the early 1900s, in two very different ways. I recently read her first, Be Frank With Me, and it’s so funny and heartfelt that it gave me high hopes for her second, 2021’s Better Luck Next Time.
In Be Frank With Me, a young New Yorker named Alice Whitley narrates the story of her time working for prickly and reclusive author M.M. Banning in the early 2000s. Alice spends most of her time taking care of Frank, Banning’s nine-year-old son. Frank is a sharp dresser, a destructive force, and a treasure trove of facts, especially about the golden age of film (circa 1910 through around 1960). He has two specific rules: No Touching Frank, and No Touching Frank’s Things. None of this makes it easy for him to connect with other kids (or anyone, really), but through their time together Alice comes to care deeply for him, even as her curiosity grows about who his father is – not to mention all the questions she has about his mother and her enigmatic handyman Xander.
While I’m not sure I’m satisfied with where the book ends (although it’s always a good sign to want more, isn’t it?) I loved smiling and laughing my way through it, particularly as Alice grows and learns along the way. Her dry wit and Frank’s unique voice combined into an unforgettable friendship.
If you like books about authors, quirky kids, or young adults coming of age, you might like Be Frank With Me. If you loved Be Frank With Me, and want a story of love, marriage, divorce, and dude ranches in 1930s Nevada, you might try Better Luck Next Time. Both have a sense of nostalgia and reminiscence about them in different ways.
In the case of Better Luck Next Time, two very different women arrive at The Flying Leap dude ranch in Reno, Nevada, hoping to stay the six weeks that will make them “residents” of Reno and therefore able to take advantage of its quick divorce policy. One is Nina, an heiress and pilot on her third divorce, and the other is Emily, for whom seeking a divorce is the bravest thing she’s ever done. They couldn’t be more different, and yet both strike up friendship with Ward, a handsome ranch hand. Themes include destructive love, healing friendship, and chosen family – and apparently the book is both humorous and heartfelt in good measure.