book review: Cleopatra and Frankenstein by Coco Mellors

Cleopatra and Frankenstein by Coco Mellors 

TW: homophobia, transphobia, suicidal thoughts, self harm, drug use, alcoholism 

Overview: Cleo and Frank meet each other by chance, but their elevator encounter has ripples through the lives of so many fellow New Yorkers. Cleo and Frank embark on a whirlwind two years together along with their various agency and artist friends who are all crumbling behind their various versions of the New York dream. In an exploration of the unintended toxic reactions that can spark even between people who hold genuine love, this book charts the life of Cleo and Frank's spontaneous marriage and everything that happens as a consequence. Overall: 3 

I feel like the only person on the planet who's not head over heels for this one. It was just really messy, and not in a fun way.

Characters: 3.5 The book is made interesting by its large cast that's followed intimately through the years. It's based on a small yet ever expansive world of a friend group blended by a married couple, and I do like how much we're able to see of all of these people on an intimate level. The story is not singularly about the title characters of the book. I was interested in these people and the subtle shifts in their relationships and how small jabs or random sentences said in passing have massive effects down the line. The characters as a whole do a good job of reminding the reader that we are all fragile, and that words do have a lifelong impact. They should be chosen with intention. 

My issue is that so many of these characters play into stereotypes in a way that I feel like Mellors trying to tee them up to be subversive but never quite achieving it. I feel like part of the issue is the way that Mellors seems to be striving for an old-timey or I guess "classic" feel in a book that also wants to discuss modern issues. In the world of the book, everything works well enough, but it left me feeling off-put in reflection on how some characters were portrayed and issues were handled. 

The characters I liked most were Zoey, Frank's half sister, and Cleo herself. While Cleo is sometimes a bit boxed in by an idea of who she is, her journey was broadly satisfying and human. At her core, we come to realize she craves the normalcy and stability that she actively pushes away for the sake of appearing like the free spirit she thinks she's meant to be. At the end of the day, her deep hopelessness comes from those who are supposed to be her best friends telling her that she never can have that stable life she wants, that she's not good enough for it (this is a theme that's also hugely present in Sorrow and Bliss as well). 

As for Zoey, she's the youngest character–an NYU student and aspiring actress. She doesn't have the same privileges as her peers, though she does have some safety net. She starts the book extremely closed off to new people and opportunities in favor of a constant swirl of drugs and alcohol. By the end of the book, she forms a quiet but lovely bond with Cleo and has grown a lot. 

Plot: 4 I did enjoy how the story progressed, but it is quite long and rambling. There are scenes that didn't seem expressly necessary, and each chapter did eventually start to drag. Maybe if the book was a bit tighter it would've gelled better for me. I did like the concept, though, of experiencing each chapter from a different character's head getting a closer look at the happenings of their lives while having those events still progress central narrative of Cleo and Frank's relationship. I liked the way this structure highlighted, like I've mentioned, the butterfly effect of it all. It showcases the small moments that change everything well, and it makes a point about how a comment one person sees as inconsequential can haunt another person for a lifetime.

Writing: 3 I think my biggest issue with this book is that I didn't find it at all as interesting and intriguing as everyone made it out to be on bookstagram. A lot of that stemmed from the writing itself. It was disorienting at the start of the book how the language made it feel like the book was set in the 1930s or some kind of historical period. Then as more details came into focus, I figured maybe it was set in 2000. Then, slowly, it became more apparent that it was meant to be set somewhere close to present day. But it seems to be yearning so badly to have that air of the past in a way that was frustrating because it didn't fully embrace all aspects of the present in doing that. Eventually, we find out there's email and there's cell phones and there's Google, but it so staunchly avoids social media's existence in a way that makes it feel less honest to the experiences it was trying to convey. 

I'm not one to shy away from books that have been labeled pretentious. Some of my favorites lately are Sally Rooney books and The Idiot. But it felt like the writing styles and the points of view of those books were done in service of the character's true identities and the stories. Beyond that, the language was fascinating, and I relished in those sentences. Cleopatra and Frankenstein feel like it's constantly feigning importance in the way the story is presented because it's unsure if it really has enough substance ultimately. 

Also, I can't get over the 2 random chapters from Eleanor's point of view that are suddenly told in first person with no signal or explanation when the entire rest of the novel is told in omniscient third. That all knowing, in everyone's head nature of each chapter, while broadly following a single character's experience, works so well. And then there's these random first person chapters told in rambling disconnected paragraphs strung together into interminably long chapters with a character we've hardly met. I don't dislike that style in general. I've enjoyed it in plenty of books (read Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead if you enjoyed these two chapters' style). But I didn't need it randomly inserted into a novel that otherwise was trying to profess its DNA as something very different. 

This book just felt inherently confused and a little overzealous in trying to make sure it delivered, so it tossed the kitchen sink into the novel. Possibly, a little more restraint and a smaller scope that was allowed to create more nuanced details would have left me feeling better about this extremely popular novel. The book isn't bad, I've just seen it done much better.

Books Mentioned in This Review

book review: Sorrow and Bliss

book review: The Idiot

book review: Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead

sally rooney reviews


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