WINNER OF THE 2018 JG-WINGATE PRIZE
A psychologically acute memoir about an unusual Hollywood family by Michael Frank, who "brings Proustian acuity and razor-sharp prose to family dramas as primal, and eccentrically insular, as they come" (The Atlantic)
“My feeling for Mike is something out of the ordi - nary,” Michael Frank overhears his aunt telling his mother when he is a boy of eight. “It’s stronger than I am. I cannot explain it . . . I love him beyond life itself.” With this indelible bit of eavesdropping, we fall into the spellbinding world of The Mighty Franks.
The family is uncommonly close: Michael’s childless Auntie Hankie and Uncle Irving, glamorous Hollywood screenwriters, are doubly related— Hankie is his father’s sister, and Irving is his mother’s brother. The two families live near each other in Laurel Canyon. In this strangely intertwined world, even the author’s grandmothers—who dislike each other—share a nearby apartment.
Strangest of all is the way Auntie Hankie, with her extravagant personality, comes to bend the wider family to her will. Talented, mercurial, and lavish with her love, she divides Michael from his parents and his two younger brothers as she takes charge of his education, guiding him to the right books to read (Proust, not Zola), the right painters to admire (Matisse, not Pollock), the right architectural styles to embrace (period, not modern—or mo-derne, as she pronounces the word, with palpable disdain). She trains his mind and his eye—until that eye begins to see on its own. When this “son” Hankie longs for grows up and begins to turn away from her, her moods darken, and a series of shattering scenes compel Michael to reconstruct both himself and his family narrative as he tries to reconcile the woman he once adored with the troubled figure he discovers her to be.
In its portrayal of this fascinating, singularly polarizing figure, the boy in her thrall, and the man that boy becomes, The Mighty Franks will speak to any reader who has ever struggled to find an independent voice amid the turbulence of family life.
In this complex and fascinating memoir, journalist Frank describes the spell cast over his childhood by his screenwriter aunt and her fury at his attempts to break away from her. Even by Hollywood standards, the Franks were unusual: Frank's mother's brother, Irving Ravetch, married his father's sister, Harriet "Hank" Frank Jr., and both families lived in close proximity in Laurel Canyon. His childless aunt and uncle settled on Frank as a substitute son, dazzling him with gifts and praise. Yet as Frank became conscious of the damage that Hank's imperious nature inflicted on family and friends, he realized how necessary, and painful, separating himself from her would be. For over three decades, Ravetch and Hank were an extremely successful screenwriting team (Norma Rae, Hud, The Long Hot Summer, etc.). In thoughtful, fluid prose, their nephew evokes the magic and sophistication of a vanished Hollywood intelligentsia schooled in the language of cinema. Readers will be enthralled by the affecting portraits of the two central figures: the aunt whose drive and charming idiosyncrasies concealed an impulsive cruelty, and the child struggling to make sense of the complex, damaged woman trying to control him. Frank doesn't fully investigate the reasons behind his aunt's behavior, but the women he describes is as iconic and memorable as the characters she created for the screen.