Cleopatra and Frankenstein: A Novel by Coco Mellors

When the darkest part of you meets the darkest part of me, it creates light.

Frank and Cleo meet on New Year’s Eve inside an elevator at a party in Tribeca, their playful banter lighting both of them up. Older gentleman that he is, Frank offers to walk her home and the two float on the air of shared intimacies. British Cleo tells him how she ended up in New York, about her parents divorce, her dad’s new family, her mother’s death, and her scholarship to study painting at a graduate program. Now at the age of 24, she is struggling and working hard as a freelancer, living in the East Village with the reality that her student visa is almost expired. Frank runs a successful ad agency (after years of working hard himself), and is quite a bit older, double her age in fact but as his friend Santiago says, ‘they are both young in spirit.’ In six months, they will marry. His support solves all of her problems and they do love each other, right? Even if it all happened in a flash, it is love, it must be! When I first started reading, I thought this was going to be a light, fast read. It felt more flirty than my usual reading taste, but then it became heavier as other characters involved in both their lives entered the story.

Where Cleo’s pals are in a different stage in life (having good times, more careless, free, exploring who they are, what they want) Franks own friends are older, more settled and successful. Of course their love is suspect to them all. Her best friend Quentin is jealous, and a little needy of her attention as he is dealing with the messes of his own heart. They had spent all their time together before Frank came along and now with his break-up with Johnny and Cleo’s marriage, Quentin is unsettled. Though he can freely explore his sexuality at ‘invite-only’ parties without disruption. His relationship with Cleo is a complex thing in itself, his deep love for her, the truth that he feels closest with no one else. He takes cheap shots, surely she married Frank for convenience, a visa! But he should be with her, even if they aren’t for each other sexually, he truly is her partner of the soul. He isn’t taking things well. In fact, he is spiraling into a bad place without her. The drugs he consumes aren’t helping him either.

Frank and Ander’s friendship is decades long and built upon intense rivalry, and Frank feels there is jealousy brewing there. With neither in long term relationship, why wouldn’t he be envious of Frank with beautiful Cleo by his side, even if Anders has all his models, Cleo is talented, intelligent, something special. But Frank truly has no idea what the real reasons are. Then there is Frank’s half-sister Zoe, from his mother’s marriage to an African American man, who he has given assistance to financially for years, deciding with his marriage it’s time to stop supporting Zoe. His sister certainly isn’t smitten with his new wife, despite shared youth and similarities in personality but surely it’s only a matter of time before she is won over. Zoe is resentful of the fact that Chloe doesn’t have to worry about money, as she now does. It’s easy to let your artistic, creative juices flow, be happy and light when money woes aren’t hanging over your head like a noose.

The point of view shifts, giving each character space inside the reader’s mind. I enjoyed Eleanor the most. Done with LA she is happy to land her new job as copy writer at the ad agency and in no time gets to know Frank. At 37 years old, she is living with her mother again in Jersey (temporarily, she reminds herself), her brilliant brother Levi rarely visits, busy doing his own thing and she is lonely. There is something grounded and clever about her, she doesn’t need model looks and dewy youth. Her humor helps her through painful realities, like her father’s illness. Frank and Eleanor hit it off, a friendship of like minds, the perfect pairing for work. When she is alone she knows she wants more out of life than where she is, thinking about people her age that are far more successful. Cleo represents youth, but Eleanor is far away from girlhood.

Frank is drinking more, Cleo isn’t happy about it, she isn’t happy at all, how can he make her happy again? He is finding that the things he has been able to provide her may be causing her to break. Each carry their childhood into adulthood, and sometimes it can be haunting. The novel isn’t solely about the age gap between them, as in any relationship threats from the outside exist, but it’s their own minds and problems that challenge their love more than other people. Can Cleo be an artist if she isn’t really painting? Who is she to point out his flaws? Their beginning seemed so magical, electric. How did they get here? There is nothing magical about fighting. There communication isn’t easy anymore and Cleo is slipping away.

It’s about love, mental health, the pain we carry into adulthood, the sacrifices we make for others, the gift of fully seeing people and the failure to. Addiction (to substances, sex, people, love, the past), marital highs and lows, evolving as people, the connections we make in the places we least expect and how to attain what the heart wants. No one in this novel is perfect or without flaws. In not always knowing their own mind, they cause pain. But there is beauty too. The human mind is the most alien thing of all, its amazing any of us make it work with another. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: February 8, 2022

Bloomsbury USA

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