Upon purchasing Cleopatra and Frankenstein by Coco Mellors, I presumed it would set the tone as the perfect beach read for my upcoming holiday to France. My friend amusingly glanced at the blurb and remarked, ‘is this a porno book?’. No Sam, it is not. But I understood his thought process. The premise is of a young British woman who was living in New York as an attempting artist. Our Cleopatra figure came to life in Mellors’ first description of Cleo: beautiful blonde curtain bangs, an oversized fur coat, and aloofly leaving a New Year’s Eve party early on the hunt for cigarettes. Mellors paints an undeniably cool figure, and the Alexa Chung-esque ‘Cleo’ leaves the party and inevitably, as if inside a perfect fairy-tale, bumps into her perfect counterpart, her Frankenstein. Or Frank, what his actual name is.
Frank is depicted as an older man in his forties, whose banter and witty word play immediately draws Cleo in. Their first conversation is a fast-paced back and forth between the pair, constantly attempting to prolong their walk and prolong the bubbling excitement which is simultaneously brewing between them. The image of Frank provides the young artist with a sense of security which she cannot find in someone her own age. He runs his own advertising agency, but most importantly, offers her the protection of being able to stay in New York. The enigmatic city in which this novel is set produces the perfect background for Cleopatra and Frankenstein, like the novel itself, it is fast paced, filled with gorgeous characters, and extremely duplicitous.
Mellors’ structure is jumpy, and the chapters are signalled by the month of the year – often hopping between large amounts of time. The effect is interesting, and as some chapters focus on the external characters within Cleo and Frank’s lives, a sense of withdrawal was felt from the main characters. I was longing to go back to their lives and felt greedy for more time with them on the page. Although the supporting characters were interesting, it felt they were playing up to certain stereotypes. Some were sexually promiscuous, a lot were drug abusers, and most were extremely spoilt. Yes, these things all occur in the ‘real world’ of New York, but at times they felt a disappointing caricature, blown up for entertainment purposes.
However, when looking back to the title of the book, Mellors tells us before we even reach the first page that these characters are amplified, exaggerated versions of themselves. Cleo and Frank become Cleopatra and Frankenstein in the moments they push past being ordinary people.
As the novel progresses, I realised it is not the beach read I first thought it was. ‘How ignorant of you’ I thought to myself, so easily fooled by the pretty front cover and allusive blurb about a tumultuous romance. The novel deals with the difficult topics of mental health, suicide, race, and drug addiction. It is hard hitting, and Mellors does not shy away from the details. Despite being wrong about Cleopatra and Frankenstein as an ‘easy read’, I was pleasantly surprised. I was hooked in by the writing, and the novel ended with a satisfying hum of approval from myself.