I am taking a risk, because I’ve only ever written about education. But the other major passion in my life is fiction. This was very nearly killed off during a four year undergraduate degree in English, after which I did not read a novel for nearly two years. Luckily, teaching English in a secondary school reminded me that fiction is truly marvellous. It is through the stories of others that we expand our human knowledge and empathy, that we travel to distant times and places, that we find comfort in not being alone in the world.
Coco Mellors’ debut offering, Cleopatra and Frankenstein, zooms in on the relationship between two individuals – and I mean, it zooms. There is barely any sub-plot. Like any great modern novel, the protagonists are fully formed to the extent that you slightly hate them both at times – though it stops short of making them truly unlikeable. Cleo is young, carefree; a British artist living in New York on borrowed time with an impending visa expiration. Frank, an artist at heart, has founded an advertising company and oversees it, earning money that drips from pages depicting unreasonably sized apartments and last-minute vacations to dream destinations. A chance meeting on New Year’s revolves rapidly into a relationship.
Both central characters make sacrifices which seem reasonable and relatable, but which ultimately undo them. One character cannot quite square his artistic soul with his day to day grind; the other pursues art but with the welcome safety net of someone else’s money. Neither quite knows what they want, until it is thrust in front of them by well-meaning extras.
In the telling, there are some genuinely funny lines and images. My particular favourite was an art installation designed to make very rich people pay a lot of money for something they definitely don’t want, which goes magnificently and catastrophically wrong. My favourite passage is this, between two anonymous characters at the office Christmas party:
“What’s your new year’s resolution?” one intern asks the other.
“Get off my antidepressants for good. I’m tired of feeling numb to life’s joys. Yours?”
The first intern reaches down to pull up the hem of his pants. “Fashion socks,” he says.
Well-written without being hard to read, and interspersed with an alternative voice to provide a pleasing contrast to the central characters, in terms of narrative structure there is closure and redemption for people who like that kind of thing in a novel.