He’s Not a ‘Man Written by a Woman’ – You’re Just Ignoring All of His Red Flags as Far as Coco Mellors’ Cleopatra and Frankenstein Is Concerned

Review by Moe Yonezawa

Coco Mellors, a woman, writes Frank, a man, who has positive and charming qualities, but is in no way a character any man should strive to be compared to. I read Mellors’ debut novel Cleopatra and Frankenstein and realised how easy it is for men to appear desirable because the bar is set so low for them, and was left pondering what it really means when men are labelled as being “written by women”. A “man written by a woman” has become a popular phrase used to praise men who live up to the impossible expectations of women. But let’s be real, they actually just do the bare minimum for being a tolerable person. The presentation of men in works written by women is not always desirable, which is the case in Mellors’ novel. Frank is presented as a man with potentially toxic characteristics, but Mellors demonstrates how a character like him can nevertheless come across as attractive, and consequently come dangerously close to being categorised as a “man written by a woman”. However, the dialogue-driven and fast-paced novel invites us to acknowledge the complexity of every individual, and to consider that simplifying a person into a category such as a “man written by a woman” can lead to their possibly harmful flaws being overlooked. Ultimately, Mellors’ novel goes to show that “men written by women” are not desirable, but realistic.

Cleopatra and Frankenstein follows the relationship of Cleo, a 24-year-old British artists, and Frank, an American advertising executive 20 years older than Cleo. The novel opens with Cleo and Frank’s coincidental first encounter while leaving the same party on New Year’s Eve in New York City. They immediately have romantic chemistry. Frank walks Cleo back to her apartment, but Cleo refuses to let Frank in because she does not want anything to develop between them since she is leaving New York in a few months. Nevertheless, in the next chapter set half a year later, we read that they are getting married. Their marriage is hardly supported by their friends, and understandably so. They met only six months ago, Frank is a lot older than Cleo, and it seems like a green card marriage, although denied by Cleo numerous times. The chapters following their marriage span a period of a year and a half, where Cleo and Frank’s relationship with their parents, friends, co-workers, and most importantly each other, escalate and unravel.

Both Cleo and Frank come from complicated families and spend their entire adulthoods avoiding the same disaster – becoming just like their mothers. Yet, as their marriage deteriorates, Frank becomes an alcoholic, just like his mother, and Cleo struggles immensely with her mental health, just like her mother. Mellors compellingly portrays both the attractive and unattractive qualities of her main characters, taking us on an emotional journey ranging from sympathy to frustration towards the both of them throughout the novel. 

Mostly narrated through an omniscient narrator, the story spans two years, emphasising the speed at which Cleo and Frank jump into, and out of, their relationship. Mellors’ use of a third person narrator allows us to catch some of Cleo or Frank’s questionable behaviours which the characters themselves might be unaware of. 

Frank’s Red Flags 

Mellors’ effective use of dialogue in combination with the omniscient narrator’s insights provides us with an awareness of the dangers and risks that Cleo and Frank’s relationship hold from the get-go. Cleo and Frank’s first interaction reveals a lot about them beyond the information they share with each other in their conversation. The first chapter, which takes place on New Year’s Eve in 2006, consists mostly of quick and witty dialogue between Cleo and Frank. Aside from the “eye-rollable” back and forth about how the British pronounce words differently and have a different set of vocabulary to Americans, Mellors’ dialogue is engaging and easy to visualise.  

Some might say that the dialogue in the first chapter is too cringey to get through, making one not want to continue reading. But this is the point of it. The dialogue and its omniscient narration work to make us feel awkward, to place us as the third wheel in the conversation. Mellors herself states that the dialogue in the beginning between Cleo and Frank is meant to be cheesy “because that frothy first chapter works to set up an expectation (of a romcom) that then flips.” 

Our position as the third wheel in the conversation allows us to immediately notice some of Frank’s red flags. These go unnoticed by Cleo because Frank has charmed her by running ahead to open a door for her or by considering what she says with “genuine earnestness”. Their conversation leads to Frank attempting to recite a Larkin poem, making Cleo remark “I’m impressed you remember any at all,” to which Frank replies: 

“I’m older than you. My generation had to memorize these things in school.”
“How old?”
“Older. What’s your name?”

Red flag number one: not revealing his age. At this point in their conversation, Cleo has already revealed her age to Frank. We as readers are also not made aware of Frank’s age, but know he is at least a decade older than Cleo as the narrator discloses Cleo’s estimation that he is in his late thirties or early forties. His decision to simply tell her that he is “older” but not specify how old and quickly change the subject while knowing how much younger Cleo is compared to him is, for the lack of a better word, weird. By withholding information, he is actually revealing more about himself.  

Moving on to red flag number two: flirting with her even though he’s aware that she’s much younger than him. After realising red flag number one, I reread some dialogue from a page before where Frank asks Cleo how old she is after she insists on getting some cigarettes. She truthfully tells him she is 24 and “Old enough to smoke, if you were thinking of telling me not to.” He presumably asks for her age because he assumes she is too young to be smoking, but he, a forty-something-year-old man, was obviously flirting with her from the beginning of their encounter. The omniscient narrator picks up on this as Frank “laughed generously” at Cleo’s remarks even though “she didn’t feel she’d been particularly witty.” Once again, weird.

Now for red flag number three: his nickname. When Cleo and Frank ponder their nicknames for each other – Cleopatra and Frankenstein – Cleo somewhat objects to the connotations behind the name Cleopatra. This is exemplified when Frank says, “Cleopatra, the original undoer of men,” to which she immediately replies: “But I’m just Cleo.” On the other hand, Frank seemingly chooses the nickname Frankenstein for himself, stating:  

“Frankenstein sounds about right. Creator of monsters.” 
“You make monsters?”
“Sort of.”

Even though he only “sort of” admits to creating monsters – because he creates ads – we do find out that he can create a monster out of himself later in the novel when he becomes an alcoholic. Not to mention, Frankenstein is a “man written by a woman” who has many flaws and is not someone one should aspire to be. All these red flags are detectable in the first few pages of the first chapter, something made possible through Mellors’ productive use of cheesy dialogue and an omniscient narrator. 

Frank’s Yellow Flags 

My focus on Frank’s flaws does not mean Cleo is innocent in the deterioration of their relationship, or her life in general. Mellors invites us to investigate Frank’s faults because of their relationship’s dynamic: he is older, he supports both of them financially, and is a man. Frank, therefore, holds most of the power in their relationship, which makes him our main subject for interrogation. Nevertheless, Cleo also has some red flags of her own. Mellors makes it clear that it takes two to get married, as well as divorced.

In the second chapter, which centres on Cleo and Frank’s wedding, Cleo finds out that her best friend Audrey hooked up with Frank’s best friend Anders. Cleo also hooked up with Anders after she had met Frank, but before they became serious, when she still thought she would be leaving New York. Upon learning that her best friend had slept with the same man she had also slept with before, she feels “a pang of jealousy shoot through her”. This is an alarming emotion to feel, especially on one’s wedding day. 

Mellors foreshadows Cleo and Anders’ eventual adulterous relationship, as well as the ultimate failure of Cleo and Frank’s marriage, in the very chapter of their wedding day. It feels as though Mellors is asking us (and maybe even Cleo and Frank themselves): why did they get married in the first place?

Cleopatra and Frankenstein also features other significant characters. Mellors emphasises the importance of the character Eleanor, Frank’s co-worker, by turning her into a first-person narrator in the eighth chapter, and again in the sixteenth chapter. Through her narration, we get another perspective on the characters, mainly Frank. The switch to first-person narration is done in an unstartling and natural way. No discomfort was felt with the shift in perspective, but I was left wondering why Mellors hadn’t used the first-person perspective for some other characters as well, specifically Cleo’s best friends Audrey and Quentin.

Eleanor narrates her and Frank’s “will-they-won’t-they” situation. It becomes obvious that they are both interested in each other, but Frank is married and is also Eleanor’s boss, perhaps adding infidelity and being involved in a workplace relationship to his list of red flags. Yet, Frank from Eleanor’s perspective actually made me less wary of him. On top of being literally written by a woman, Frank becomes a man told by a woman who is starstruck by him, making it even easier for us to idealise him. Because of the first-person narration, we aren’t given the details of his flaws. Eleanor is infatuated by him, and so are we. 

If we were to get Audrey and Quentin’s first-person perspective on Frank, he wouldn’t be portrayed in such a positive light. This is something that would have made me enjoy the novel even more, seeing as there is a lot about Frank that I already am not a big fan of. A man told by a woman’s best friends (preferably ones who dislike him) is just what we need to avoid putting men on pedestals for being just another mediocre “man written by a woman”. The omniscient narrator already allows us to give Frank the side-eye, but Audrey and Quentin’s narration would have given us the opportunity to directly glare at him. This would have also provided Audrey and Quentin with a bigger purpose in the story, as it feels like they were included purely for diversity points: Audrey, an Asian woman, and Quentin, a gay man struggling with his gender identity. If both characters had been given a first-person perspective in the way Eleanor has, their importance as characters may have become clear.

Cleo and Frank’s Red Flags: Coming Soon to a Screen Near You 

Mellors’ debut novel is clever in the ways it interrogates the issue of age-gap relationships. Aside from the moments depicting Cleo’s severe struggles with mental health which can be difficult to get through, and despite of the novel’s flaws (or red flags if you will), it is an entertaining and propulsive read. Especially when reading it the way I did: by keeping score of each character’s red flags.

The detailed dialogue and shifting narration in Cleopatra and Frankenstein makes the novel perfect for an on-screen adaptation. So much so that it’s development into a television series with Warner Bros Television has already been confirmed. When literary characters are brought to life in a film or television series, there is a danger that viewers will admire them even more, largely because they are always (particularly in romance narratives) played by attractive actors. Once the on-screen adaptation of Mellors’ novel is released, Frank will probably be labelled and praised as a “man written by a woman”. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there, by reminding each other of all of his red flags. In the meantime, please remember: Frank, and any “man written by a woman,” is really just a man. 

Moe Yonezawa is an MA Literature Today student at Utrecht University. She obtained her BA at Amsterdam University College where she studied Liberal Arts and Sciences because she couldn’t choose exactly what she wanted to pursue. Thankfully, she realised her enthusiasm for literature during those three years. She enjoys reading literature which allows her to be judgmental towards characters, which is especially possible when reading through a feminist lens.

Works Cited 

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