Cleopatra and Frankenstein is Coco Mellor’s appropriately-labelled ‘triumphant debut’. Chronicling the impulsive and ill-dated marriage between Cleo and Frank, and all is negative side-effects, Mellors debut novel is a wickedly beautiful read. Cleo is a twentysomething struggling artist. Originally from London, she’s found herself in New York on a student visa, barely scraping by, and struggling to orgasm as a result of her antidepressants. Frank is an advertising director over forty with a penchant for drinking too much, and is objectively too old for Cleo. But not long after meeting at the party of a mutual friend, just a few months later, they marry and this union deeply uproots them both, leaving their lives forever changed.
Mellors has an incredibly illustrative way of writing – whether it’s the sex, the fury, or the despair, you can truly feel it. Both Cleo and Frank are deeply and inherently flawed, and I found myself immediately unsupportive of their relationship. At the time of their wedding, Cleo is 24 and Frank is in his early forties. By the novel’s end, Cleo is 26 and Frank is 45 or so, putting a solid twenty years between them. And the age difference isn’t the only distance between them. The weight of Frank’s drinking problem, Cleo’s deep and inconsolable sadness, as well as the pair’s wandering eyes, begins to cause noticeable and irreparable cracks in their marriage. From potentially life-threatening bets and over-drinking on their honeymoon, to poor drowned animals and blood-stained soil, Cleo and Frank’s relationship becomes increasingly more tumultuous and distressing as time goes on. As the cracks become more obvious and unavoidable, so-called ‘mommy and daddy issues’ seem pertinent. It feels as though a good part of their incompatibility comes from their poorly acknowledged and unhealed childhood issues. Frank, with his alcoholic, avoidant mother and a father shockingly committed to not being a father, and Cleo, with her emotionally and physically distant father and long-deceased and mentally ill mother, are both haunted in different ways by their sh*tty childhoods. This is a theme that Mellors doesn’t make so obvious, apart from a heated argument in a cold cabin between Frank and Cleo about who had the worst childhood, but it is impossible to ignore the ways in which they are both still very much hurt little children trying to defend themselves, and trying to survive.
There’s also a slew of supporting but amazingly well-rounded, unique, and complex characters, who serve as welcome distractions from the whirlwind that is Cleo and Frank’s marriage: to name a few, there’s Anders, Quentin, Santiago, and Zoe. Although Mellors rarely slips into writing in the first-person (the majority is written in the third) they all take turns sharing the spotlight, occasionally receiving a chapter centred around their personal shenanigans. I really took to Zoe in particular; she’s Frank’s younger half-sister, the result of their mother’s remarriage to her father. She’s young, just a mere 19 at the novel’s start, and she’s foolish, a little reckless, incredibly charming, and keeping her finances in shape isn’t her strong point. She’s relatable, to say the least.
Cleopatra and Frankenstein is the first substantial book I’ve read in a short while. It’s an immersive, complicated, and emotional read that is about true love in many ways, and the destructive power it can have over someone. The tale of Cleo and Frank’s love affair makes for an addictive 300+ page read, and a powerful debut, leaving me excited for Coco Mellors’ future work.