Book review: When Franny Stands Up by Eden Robins

(courtesy Sourcebooks)

Discovering who you actually are, assuming you are bothering to look in the first place (not everyone is), is one of life’s great gifts.

It’s not always the easiest of things to uncover sometimes, and can involves a huge amount of blood, sweat and tears and challenges to who you thought you were supposed to be, but it always pays off in the end in some way, even if it’s just having the freedom and courage to make your own way through life, free from the shackles of expectations and societal pressure.

But as Franny Steinberg discovers on Christmas Eve in 1944 when she goes to an upmarket hotel to see famed comedienne Boopsie Baxter do her extraordinary act, embarking on this journey and knowing where and how it will end up are two entirely different, narratively propelling things.

In the joyously illuminating delights of When Franny Stands Up, a wondrously good title that works on so many soul-pleasing levels, we are privileged to see the titular character, a Mrs Maisel-esque character who inadvertently defies all kinds of conventions she didn’t realise were holding her back, grow from a timid young Jewish woman from the Chicago suburbs whose not entirely what she wants except it’s not what everyone else, like her best friend, Mary Kate Finnegan, does to someone who knows her own mind, who finds out she can be funny and kind, and who charts her own course through life on her own terms.

It’s a glorious awakening, one marked by sparklingly funny dialogue and whip smart insights, and we are lucky to be there every day of its charming, thrillingly courageous, and joyously evocative way.

She had only wanted to relieve a little pressure, have a little laugh. Take her mind off the nightmares and the dread, the constant hum of worry about Leon. Just one night off. Just for a moment. But this was what happened when Franny took her mind off things. She lost them.

What marks When Franny Stands Up out as something special is that it neatly dances between sweetly sentimental, a mid-20th century ode to possibility and hope, which is abundant, if trauma-scarred in the aftermath of World War Two (a conflagration that has left Franny’s brother, Leon, a shadow of his former avuncular self), and excitingly brave, a clarion call in effect to anyone, women especially, who has ever felt trapped in an life-weary straitjacket not of their making.

If you ask Franny at the start of When Franny Stands Up if she is unhappy or not sure if the traditional roles of wife, mother and homemaker are for her, she would likely have given a hesitant reply, knowing that she doesn’t really want that somewhere deep down but unsure how to articulate that or let it come to the surface in a way she can live out.

She attempts on a number of occasions to rationalise how she could live with that kind of diminished existence, usually when she’s taken steps to live out a dream she didn’t know she wanted when an emotionally traumatic day leads her to take the stage at the Blue Moon club and try her hand at stand up comedy, but she fails each and every time because Franny, scarily for her at first but happily for those of us who don’t fit the mold, is not your usual Jewish woman from the ‘burbs.

(courtesy official Eden Robins Twitter account)

She wants more, lots more from life, and while much of When Franny Stands Up is concerned with how she works what that is, and just as importantly what that isn’t – she wants to be on stage and be funny, very funny, but she’s not sure she wants the cutthroat comedic brutality that goes with it – it’s also about how she wants her own Showstopper, that gift the female comics of the age have (they emerge when all the men are at war) which magically transforms audiences in that moment of transcendental laughter.

It’s that sprinkle of magical realism that gives this warm, heartfelt story of pain and trauma, hope and restoration, and coming to know who you are, an extra little something special.

It’s the Showstopper that momentously alerts Franny to who she can be as a woman, a realisation which freaks her out at first but which soon sees her trying out jokes on stage, something she hides from her richly loving, quirkily sweet parents and her postwar, angry veteran brother Leon, figuring out dating good Jewish boys is not for her (at least in the standard mode) and charting a life that may see her going further afield, geographically and existentially that she ever imagined possible.

Quite possibly the best part of Franny’s change from timid to most certainly not is how unselfish it turns out to be; while the comic friends she makes at the Blue Moon, in all their gender-defying, queer fabulousness, are adamant you have to do it all for yourself (though they end up helping her out in many ways too), Franny finally decides her departure from orthodoxy will only mean something if she can make things different for those she loves too, and even those she doesn’t but who need a transformative lift.

Franny had to leave a whole life behind just to get here, where she had no idea what was coming next. Mary Kate wasn’t wrong—she had willingly left behind nearly everyone who had ever loved her. But was she really leaving them behind? Change wasn’t death; it was just the opposite. There had been so many endings, Franny had almost forgotten that new things were beginning too.

It’s the arrival of Franny’s Showstopper that marks a pivot for her as she realises that its possible to realise dreams you didn’t even know you wanted, but which suddenly mean a great deal to you, and not turn into a narcissistic soul who cares only for their own self-realisation.

It’s the generosity of spirit and willingness to keep an eye on what others want as much as what she needs and wants – which again is most definitely not what a good girl in the 1950s is supposed to want; Franny’s defiance of convention is one of the book’s great joys and strengths – that fuels When Franny Stands Up with a giddy sense of the impossible or the unexpected coming to be.

With one eye firmly on the societal sins of the age, from the repression of women, queer identity and racial integration, all of which are tackled in ways both cleverly humourous and soberly intense (though there’s more of the smartly-written former than the latter) and another on the way even the most hidebound of expectations can, and must be, subverted, When Franny Stands Up is a glittering joy of a novel that’s super intelligent, wittily alive, warmly charming and unconventionally inspiring, reminding us every step of Franny’s headily unscripted journey that life can surprise us, and surprise us greatly, and that when it does, we need to grab hold and hang on and ride it to wherever it takes us, learning, growing and acting on who we really are and remaking the world around us until we are more than comfortable in our own unconventional skin.

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