Book Review: When Franny Stands Up by Eden Robins

Title: When Franny Stands Up
Author: Eden Robins
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: November 1, 2022
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Historical/speculative fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Nothing is more dangerous than a woman with a showstopping joke.

Franny Steinberg knows there’s powerful magic in laughter. She’s witnessed it. With the men of Chicago off fighting WWII on distant shores, Franny has watched the women of the city taking charge of the war effort. But amidst the war bond sales and factory shifts, something surprising has emerged, something Franny could never have expected. A new marvel that has women flocking to comedy clubs across the nation: the Showstopper.

When Franny steps into Chicago’s Blue Moon comedy club, she realizes the power of a Showstopper—that specific magic sparked when an audience laughs so hard, they are momentarily transformed. And while each comedian’s Showstopper is different, they all have one thing in common: they only work on women.

After a traumatic flashback propels her onstage in a torn bridesmaid dress, Franny discovers her own Showstopper is something new. And suddenly she has the power to change everything…for herself, for her audience, and for the people who may need it most.

I first became aware of When Franny Stands Up when an author I love recommended it. I’ve since read a couple of stellar reviews. And all this leaves me wondering — what did I miss?

In When Franny Stands Up, women’s comedy clubs are struggling to survive in the 1950s, after male comedians become popular on TV and grab all the attention. But women know a secret: in the live stand-up shows for women only, certain talented comedians have Showstoppers — moments of magic where the performer induces certain special effects on the women in the audience as they laugh.

For Franny, she first encounters a Showstopper years earlier, sneaking away from her protective parents’ home in a Chicago suburb to see the famous Boopsie Baxter perform. But Franny is not at all prepared for her powerful reaction to Boopsie’s Showstopper, and runs back home in shame and fear, only to discover that her soldier brother has gone missing in action in Europe. For Franny, these two events become very much linked, and she determines to be good and give up her interest in comedy forever.

But as the main part of the story opens, 23-year-old Franny is burdened by her daily life, her worries over her brother, now home but suffering from PTSD, and her alienation from her former best friend, who’s about to get married, and whose family is responsible for one of Franny’s worst memories. When events at the wedding go badly, Franny runs off yet again, and finds herself at the Blue Moon club, where a whole new world awaits.

Sadly, so much of this story simply didn’t make sense to me. Franny’s interest in comedy, especially in becoming a stand-up comedian, seems to come out of nowhere, and isn’t well explained. And why the club owner and other performers take an interest in Franny or immediately sense her potential talent — well, I have no idea.

There are many interesting concepts scattered throughout the story, but whether it’s the writing itself or the approach to the plot, it never particularly gelled for me. I found the writing style choppy, with descriptions and plot actions not quite making sense to me. As new occurrences and situations popped up, I often felt like I must have accidentally skipped some pages — just how did we get from point A to point B? Some characters as well just never made sense — I can think of one in particular who, by the end of the story, I still didn’t know if she was supposed to be sympathetic or an antagonist, and that definitely did not seem like an intentional construction of a morally gray characters. Instead, it was just another example of a writing approach that didn’t work for me.

The idea of the Showstopper concept is pretty cool, absolutely — but the plot, inconsistent character depictions, dropped or under-developed storylines, and unclear character motivation all got in the way of my enjoyment of When Franny Stands Up. There are some interesting ideas here, but sadly, the book as a whole just didn’t work for me.