Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Mighty Franks, by Michael Frank

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Meet Aunt Hankie, a mix of Auntie Mame and Diana Vreeland, but on steroids.

Literature is littered with mad, eccentric aunties. Think Graham Greene's Travels with my Aunt, Patrick Dennis' Auntie Mame or more recently, David Walliams' Awful Auntie. Short story and travel writer Michael Frank takes this theme into new territory with his memoir, The Mighty Franks. Part fabulous bon viveur and part monster, Michael Frank's Aunt "Hankie" Harriet is the type of character you love to read about, but would be terrified to meet.

The story starts with Michael Frank's family, living in Los Angeles in the Sixties. The family's mix was a bit unusual to begin with. Two sets of siblings married each other. Admittedly, this does get confusing. Sister and brother Harriet and Marty married brother and sister Irving and Merona. Merona and Marty are the author's parents.

From a very early age, Aunt Hankie lavished special attention on her young nephew, Michael. She felt they were simpatico, cut from the same cloth, lovers of art, literature and beauty. She was effusive in her praise of him and generous. Often she would claim she wished that Michael was her son (she never had children of her own.) Money was no problem for Hankie. She and her husband Irving were successful Hollywood screen writers. One of Hankie's passions was for "antiquing", going on jaunts to the antique shops and coming back with more and more sculptures, furniture and various objets d'art, stuffing her "maison" full to the brim. For these trips she always enlisted her beloved Michael, a co-conspirator. Wildly generous, she always bought Michael exotic presents during these trips antiquing.

Michael Frank describes himself as being almost addicted to Hankie's glamour, artistic flair and erudition. He soaked it up like a drug. But there was also a downside to Hankie's generosity and fast-track company. She was possessive, dictatorial and often totally unreasonable. Her steely willpower was absolutely frightening. When Michael developed into an adult, pursuing his own interests, and therefore needing some distance from Aunt Hankie, there were all sorts of dramatic conflicts. She accused him of betraying her and being ungrateful. Her tyrannical behaviour only got worse as the years progressed, turning her into an impossible, Norma Desmond-like caricature.

Hankie herself is undoubtedly a brilliant and bracing character. She really is a mix of Patrick Dennis' Auntie Mame (one of Mame's catchphrases, Live! live! live! perfectly mirrors Hankie's philosophy of More! more!) and legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland, who claimed to fire staff if she didn't like their shoes.

Written in a beautiful lapidary prose, Michael Frank's detailed anatomy of his relationship with his aunt is a compelling meditation on the mystery of personality. Why are we so relentlessly the way we are?

The Mighty Franks: A Memoir, by Michael Frank. Published by 4th Estate. ISBN: 9780008215200  RRP: $27.99

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