Title: My Lovely Frankie
Author: Judith Clarke
Genre: YA Fiction
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 28th June 2017
Synopsis: A masterful, moving story about a teenage boy caught between faith and love, by one of Australia’s finest YA writers.
‘Frankie believed in Heaven quite literally, as if it was another lovely world out past the stars. And when he spoke the word “love”, it seemed to spring free and fly into the air like a beautiful balloon you wanted to run after. But I couldn’t tell my parents about Frankie, not properly. I told them I’d made friends with the boy in the room next to mine, and how he’d come from this little town out west. I couldn’t tell them how he was becoming the best thing in my world. I couldn’t tell anyone, I hardly admitted it to myself.’
In the 1950s, ‘entering’ the seminary was forever, and young boys were gathered into the priesthood before they were old enough to know what they would lose. Tom went to St Finbar’s because he was looking for something more than the ordinary happiness of his home and school.
But then he discovered that being able to love another person was the most important thing of all. For Tom, loving Frankie made him part of the world. Even when Frankie was gone…
Set during a time when entering the seminary was for life, with some boys sent there from a very young age, unable to know or discover what they would be giving up, and a time when homosexuality was something that wasn’t spoken about , or accepted, and given different names, or described differently, being able to talk about how you felt was hard. What My Lovely Frankie does is take a young boy, just realising he is gay, and entering St Finbar’s with a desire to join the seminary, on his journey of the conflict he finds between the love he feels for someone that society tells him he shouldn’t, and the faith he has followed in his heart, into a priesthood. Tom tells the story as he is nearing the end of his life to his cousin Miri, who has always known, and accepts him for who he is. In the world they grew up in, the gay couple Tom’s parents knew are accepted by Tom and his family, and his father always says “Love is love.” Clarke moves easily from Tom’s narration as an elderly man into the voice of a sixteen year old boy, discovering what love and faith mean, and finding a way to accept who he is.
Entering St FInbar’s later than most of the boys. Tom is befriended by Frankie, sent there by his father for something he shouldn’t have done with a girl – had sex – as a punishment, yet to Frankie, it is almost a sanctuary. He is friendly and bubbly, and takes Tom on as a friend almost immediately upon meeting him. As Tom tells the reader, Frankie always did things his way: arriving at the school, caring for the younger kids such as Hay, who might need food or a handkerchief, or even just reaching out for Tom, who escorts him to a dentist and then keeps his secrets about his feelings for one of the St Brigid’s girls. Frankie is not gay, but still loves Tom, still loves those who care for him, but in a different way to how Tom does. Tom uses his love to try and protect Frankie from Etta, the bully who spies on everyone and reports to the Rector to get those he feels need punishing in trouble. Together, Tom and Frankie work – the love they share, though different for each boy, is written beautifully and with great care and sensitivity.
Though heartbreaking in the knowledge that Tom will never be able to tell Frankie how he feels, telling the story of an LGBTQ+ character in the 1950s, where it is not accepted and fear can prevent people from revealing their true selves, as it did with Tom – he always knew but also knew he would not be accepted, and the fear that Frankie would think less of him – My Lovely Frankie reveals that the love of a friendship can be just as powerful as romantic love, and examines how faith and love are at times, in conflict with each other and how this affected someone like Tom.
I fell in love with Frankie and his exuberance and kindness towards just about everyone, and the way he just accepted Tom as a friend the first time they met. Reading and watching their friendship grow, I hoped that things would work out nicely for Tom and Frankie, that maybe they would fall in love – and perhaps they did, but in different ways for each of them. I felt it celebrated the differences in love, and highlighted the importance of accepting yourself for who you are, and not what others expect you to be, or to see yourself as a mirror of another who might share your feelings. I felt though there was tragedy and heartbreak, this made it more realistic for me, the unrequited love, the unspoken love, because it is probably something quite relatable for many people, whoever they love from afar.
It is a great book for any YA readers and fans, and Judith Clarke has tackled this subject matter sensitively and in an accessible way that does not present too much darkness, yet at the same time, is telling readers that it is okay to be who you are.