The cover of Let Me Be Frank With You features a ruined roller coaster in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. This picture was everywhere in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy. I’ve spent a good part of my life at the Jersey Shore and rode that roller coaster more than once over the years. I was attracted to this book because of the photo and because I saw first-hand what Sandy did to a part of the shore where I spent every summer as a girl and a place where I still go with my family. I’d heard that Ford was a great storyteller and I was looking forward to reading some fiction set in an area I know very well.
I jumped into this Frank Bascombe series, knowing nothing about the Frank in the very popular first three books: The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land. But jumping in was the easy part. The back story is easy to pick up. Let Me Be Frank With You is a book of four loosely connected stories with Frank Bascombe as the narrator. A few pages in and I quickly learned, however, that Frank is a cynical, crotchety and negative retiree, who can’t get through a moment without bashing one thing or another.
Nothing much happens in these stories. It’s mostly a lot of rants about marriage, friendship, death, and getting old. Beneath the rants are internal ramblings about people, doctors, professions, and Republicans, who annoy the narrator to no end. I didn’t enjoy the book because I was expecting something else. I got the feeling that the author chose this location for dramatic effect, without knowing much about the Jersey Shore. Let Me Be Frank With You could have been set anywhere – putting Hurricane Sandy into the stories seemed like a force. While it’s fun to see descriptions of Toms River, Ortley Beach, Lavallette and Mantoloking, towns that were hard-hit, Ford doesn’t give them the right feel because I don’t think he really knows them. Of course, Let Me Be Frank With You is fiction and the author has every right to take liberties. He creates two fictional towns in New Jersey, Haddam and Sea Clift and that’s where most of the stories take place. Only a shore person would know the difference when he references other towns, but I’m a shore person, so it matters to me! In the 2007 article, “A New Jersey State of Mind,” from The New York Times, Ford describes his affection for New Jersey and the research he did to prepare for his novel, The Lay of the Land. Maybe you can’t get an authentic feel for the shore unless you’ve lived your life there, not just visited a few times. So it’s probably a small point to most readers.
To be fair, however, Let Me Be Frank With You is well-written and Frank’s character is true to his observations. I’ve known people like Frank, so that adds credibility. I just didn’t like Frank very much and I’m sure he wouldn’t like me either if fictional characters could meet real people. But when he’s not complaining, Frank makes some thoughtful observations about relationships and getting older. Here are a few:
It’s too bad we don’t let ourselves in for more unexpected moments. Life would be less flimsy, feel more worth preserving.
Those who ignore history are no more likely to repeat it than anyone else, but are more likely to feel better about many things.
In fact, like many of the things we suddenly stop to notice about ourselves, once we’re fairly far down the line, we are how we are because we’ve liked it that way. It’s made us happy.
These remarks make you think, but they’re mixed in with a great deal of negativity. I just didn’t feel good reading this book. It’s not that I only want to read positive things, but it depressed me to be so deep in his head. I was glad to finish.
Have you read this book? How about Richard Ford’s other books? Tell me what you think. I have a feeling I may have picked the one clunker out of an otherwise impressive bunch…
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