Cleopatra and Frankenstein (2022)
Words by Erin Waks
Cleopatra and Frankenstein (2022)
Coco Mellors’ debut novel, Cleopatra and Frankenstein, must be added to your summer reading list. It brings together everything that is at once artful, light, emotionally complex, and romantic – and I don’t just say this because I read it on a sunny balcony in Portugal. A love story gone wrong; the novel follows Cleo, a 24-year-old British artist living in New York, and her relationship with Frank, a wealthy older man. The beginning is full of hope brimming with romantic conventions and cliches that we have come to love. But as Mellors said, ‘it’s about the darkness beneath that glittering façade.’ Just when we expect the relationship, and following marriage, to save both protagonists, we are left hanging, faced with the bleakness of their new life together. It is a novel rooted in reality.
Most exquisite is the construction of Cleo, the tortured artist trying desperately to find success in the Big Apple. We are not quite sure what to make of her – she appears to be a character warranting our sympathy, given her traumatic childhood and timid nature. Yet her manipulative tendencies and self-victimisation create a façade that hides her problematic need to captivate the attention of everyone (well, every man). Are we to love her, or hate her? She is ‘not like’ the other girls, for ‘she was unmothered, unmoored.’ The emotionally manipulative ‘pick me girl’ possesses a devastatingly infuriating coquettish naïveté, but still invokes in the reader a desire for her to succeed.
Cleo’s romantic counterpart, Frank, is an equally developed character. Far from the stereotypical older gentleman seeking a young partner: he is full of life, charismatic, and not without his demons. His alcoholism haunts the narrative, a constant reminder of its impact on their relationship. The New York high life offers a refuge for Cleo and Frank to hide from their loneliness. It is not entirely clear whether their marriage is one of pure love or convenience. But one thing is certain: their relationship is as desperate as it is passionate. Their traumatic childhoods left both with a feeling of being unlovable, and a subsequent need to be loved in the present. As Frank aptly observes: 'The people who did get that love, they grew up to be different from us. More secure. Maybe they’re not as shiny or successful as you and I feel we need to be. But it's not because they’re not interesting. They just don’t feel they have to do the tap dance, you know? They don’t have to prove themselves all the time to be loved. Because they always were.’
The plethora of other isolated individuals seeking escapism punctuates the novel: Zoe, Frank’s actress sister; Eleonor, his work colleague who admires him from afar; and Quentin, Cleo’s enigmatic drug-addict best friend. Each with their own stories and struggles, Mellors truly succeeds in bringing to light the reality beneath our increasingly fake outer shells. The writer explores the devastating truth of living with mental illness, notably through Cleo’s psychological breakdown. Following her experience in a mental health institution and her subsequent return home, we witness the impact mental illnesses have on individuals and their loved ones. Mellor’s skill is in portraying the depth of darkness bound up with mental illness, whilst providing an overarching note of hope.
Touching on themes of addiction, abuse, and self-harm, the novel is hard-hitting without being too explicit. Rather than making social judgements, Mellors examines the reality of living with one’s anxieties and troubles. Surviving difficult experiences, her characters live life to the fullest, with almost infectious joie-de-vivre.