I’ve had my eye on this book for a while. It has been highly praised in the United States, winning lots of plaudits for its debut novelist Coco Mellors, and in the UK it was a Sunday Times bestseller. The blurb was tantalising; set in New York city it tells the story of a whirlwind romance and its consequences, and comparisons with Sally Rooney have been drawn. My book club liked the sound of it too. We mostly do audiobooks these days as we are busy ladies of a certain age with families and work, etc, and I downloaded it excitedly.
It is essentially a novel of character studies. Cleo is a twenty-something artist struggling to make ends meet in New York where she has a low-calibre job while making her art in her spare time. Cleo is troubled and drifting. She is British but feels no connection with her home country where she has no friends and very little family. Her mother died by suicide when she was in her final year at university. Her parents separated when she was young and her father remarried a ghastly woman and has a new family.
Cleo’s US visa is about to expire and she has no idea what she is going to do next when she meets Frank at a party. Frank is twenty years her senior and owns a successful advertising agency. The opening chapters focus heavily on their initial meeting and the intense chemistry between them, and the inevitability of their getting together. The opening is clever and satisfying to read while also telling us a lot about these two people. It sets the scene really well. Despite the age difference Cleo and Frank seem well-suited. It is tempting to say that Cleo is looking for a ‘father-figure’, but I don’t think that would be correct; she is looking for stability though. Her life experience also makes her older than her years. Frank also had a troubled upbringing, his mother was an alcoholic, and he says he has never met anyone like Cleo before. He is perhaps a little younger than his years. Needless to say, their relationship blossoms. The impending expiry of Cleo’s work visa creates a literary turning point in the plot of the novel. Frank asks Cleo to marry him in a kind of ‘what have they got to lose’ way and they have a quickie ceremony at City Hall, witnessed by an emotional hot dog seller.
So far so good, but for me, the book goes somewhat downhill from here. It is clear that the rest of the novel is going to be about their marriage – will they repent of having married in haste?
The next few chapters focus a lot on Cleo and Frank’s circle, rather than the couple themselves, and I felt I rather lost the two main characters here. Coco Mellors goes into detailed character portraits of their friends Santiago, Anders and Vincent, and Frank’s younger half-sister Zoe, and we meet Cleo’s father and his wife Miriam, who were cringingly two-dimensional for me. There were times when I wanted to give up on this book because I was so deeply irritated with the secondary characters. I found them lazy stereotypes and I could not fathom why we needed to know so much about them. My only conclusion is that they were there to tell us a bit about “life in New York city”, which I found a bit patronising. It all seemed like something out of Wall Street! Or they were there for padding, to take the focus off Cleo and Frank for a few months, the period during which they were relatively content with one another, until the author could legitimately turn to problems arising in their marriage after the first flush or romance.
About half way through a further character is introduced. Eleanor is a forty year-old copywriter who goes to work in Frank’s agency. It is clear she is much more ‘ordinary’ than the ‘extraordinary’ Cleo (looks-wise) but there is something about her that attracts Frank’s attention. They share an easy companionability that contrasts with the more intense relationship he has with Cleo. Not unexpectedly, Frank and Cleo’s marriage begins spectacularly to disintegrate, as do the other characters in the book, in a kind of parallel decline. To be fair, the book gets better again from here, although I found the ending disappointingly predictable.
I’m really not sure about this book. It is well-written and I liked the characters of Cleo and Frank, and Eleanor. I disliked most of the others though and found the novel a bit unbalanced in that respect. It’s not a bad read, though it could be quite triggering for some, covering themes of suicide, addiction, and childhood trauma.
My main complaint is that it seems to favour sensationalism over authenticity and other books I have read recently cover similar themes better (for example, any of Sally Rooney’s books and Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason). I came across an LA Times review which said that Cleopatra and Frankenstein read as though it had been written to be adapted for a Netflix series, and I think I probably agree.