A writer reflects on his celebrated aunt’s overbearing influence on his life.
Eccentric family dynamics provide the backdrop for this coming-of-age memoir from Frank, a travel writer and former Los Angeles Times book critic, who recalls the unusually close ties between his immediate family and his aunt and uncle, noted screenwriters Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch. The two families lived just blocks apart from each other in the Laurel Canyon neighborhood of LA. The driving power source within the family is Harriet, aka Auntie Hankie, a charismatic yet manipulative and narcissistic woman with lavish spending habits and pretentious manners. Early on in Frank’s childhood, Hankie showed great interest in his upbringing, aggressively influencing his interests and tastes and eventually becoming an all-consuming force in his life and major disrupter within the family. As he grew through his teens and early adult life, Hankie’s influence became increasingly difficult for him to bear. Throughout much of the narrative, the author documents her frequently erratic and cruel behavior in relentless detail. Though she was clearly a deeply troubled individual, the portrayal feels excessively narrow; there seems to be more to her than Frank conveys here. The author alludes to her glamorous Hollywood connections yet provides scant attention to her actual work. Though not necessarily a household name for current moviegoing audiences, her accomplishments as a screenwriter, often in collaboration with her husband, were significant, especially in such notable films as Hud (1963), starting Paul Newman, and Norma Rae (1979), starring Sally Field and Beau Bridges, both of which earned Academy Award nominations. The author occasionally displays a novelist’s flare in his descriptions of family members and the LA environment of the 1960s and ’70s, but readers may feel that there is more to this story than what is presented here.
A lengthy exploration of one family’s uniquely claustrophobic dysfunctions; Frank only finds mixed success in delivering a compelling narrative to bolster the provocative premise.