All the News I Need by Joan Frank


From the moment 62-year-old Oliver Gaffney — Ollie — shuffles onto the first page of Joan Frank’s slim but deeply perceptive sixth book of fiction, All the News I Need, it’s impossible not to find him endearing. Yes, he’s an obsesser. An incessant kvetcher. A glass-pretty-darn-well-empty sort of chap.


When we first meet him, he’s scouting out men in a San Francisco park while sitting on his favorite bench. Sort of. Ever since his semi-partner of two years, Ennis, died in a car crash years ago, Ollie’s wanted nothing to do with flirting or dating, let alone sex. In fact, he’s wanted nothing much to do with anything — or anyone.

Except bold, brassy Fran — and even that’s a stretch.

 Ollie and Fran became friends by default. Fran met Ollie’s friend Kirk while browsing the aisles of San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore. After she and Kirk got married, Fran basically tolerated Ollie, even though she thought he was a bit of a wet blanket. A “long tall stick-figure of sadness.”

But everything changed when Kirk suddenly keeled over from a stroke while folding laundry. Fran quit her job as a weekly columnist and book reviewer at the local paper and systematically shut down. She surrounded herself with stillness. That “absence of movement, absence of sound. A stopping. Silence in her teeth, in her bones.”

Slowly — eventually — she and Ollie picked up their old routine in Kirk’s absence. They talked on the phone intermittently. Sometimes he’d visit her at the house north of San Francisco. But he never stayed over. He needed his things — his sink, his mattress. Besides, their friendship was just “a habit.”

Eight years later, the two saddish sacks are still stuck in that rut. Going through the motions. On a whim, they plan a three-week vacation to France. As Fran puts it, it was for the sole purpose of “cracking something open. Getting knocked around.”

For Ollie, it had the potential of being “a catastrophic mistake … Now they’d signed on to be roped together like a couple of Matterhorn climbers. Day and night — dear Lord, the same bathroom — for three weeks.”

Oh boy.

As one might expect from this lead-up, the whirlwind trip to Paris and the French countryside is not the breezy travelogue you’d expect. Sure, there’s the touring of the Parc Monceau, the Musée d’Orsay, Toulouse. The “Greatest Hits tour” of all the stops that meant something to Fran and Kirk when they lived there. (Be warned: one of which is a tearjerker!)

But while all of that is happening, Ollie’s busy fretting over the oddness of the French version of Listerine and scheming how to wrangle another pillow from the hotel front desk clerk. That, and his dubious run-in with a handsome street vendor, followed by a ball-busting screaming match with Fran.

Apparently some people just don’t travel that well together.

From the summary of the plot thus far, it seems as though a better title of Frank’s novel would be “All the Bad News I Need.” But that’s really the fault of this reviewer. In truth, the book is quite wonderful. Fran’s perseverance — and even Ollie’s mutterings about getting (smelling) older and feeling irrelevant — speak volumes about our need for companionship, the resilience of the human spirit, and our connection to time and place.

Frank’s prose is evocative, too. Take her description of the house Ollie grew up in: it “smelled of dust, tapioca, tomato juice, gin and tonics (before dinner each evening), and the nostril-pinching chemicals his [entomologist] father used for specimens.”

Let’s be clear about this: All the News I Need is a keeper. It’s one of those rare reads you’ll read and pick up again a decade later, this time with a new perspective. And lest you need another reason to take a gander, how about this: The last section of the book really turns the tables. Here’s a hint: Uplifting isn’t even the half of it.


Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (June 9, 2017)

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