Hello, dear readers, and happy Tuesday! I have some controversial updates in today’s column, so buckle up and be ready for my first DNF confession.
I’m an advocate of not finishing books we don’t enjoy (which is what DNf’ing means, in bookish acronyms). But I hardly ever go into detail or indeed admit leaving books unfinished in my reading-related articles. This is usually because I don’t think it’s necessary. I decide a book isn’t working for me, pass it on, and move on to the next.
But I thought my latest DNF might be worth sharing. Because it’s a book that took the bookish world by storm.
Why I stopped reading ‘Cleopatra and Frankenstein’ by Coco Mellors
Cleopatra and Frankenstein by Coco Mellors is not just a popular book I DNFed. It’s a popular book I aggressively eliminated from my reading queue the moment I got to a certain scene.
Here’s the deal: this book sounds exactly like my cup of tea. Contemporary fiction about a couple who are so intensely different and flawed that they end up destroying their lives and relationships with those around them, by being together. We love to see it. Give me damaged characters with a lot to offer. Give me conflict, give me a love story that doesn’t make sense and not just because of external factors.
I listened to a few good hours of this book and everything about it was right up my street at the beginning. The writing is one of the best I’ve seen in contemporary fiction. The characters are complex and very well developed. The plot, while somewhat mundane, manages to grip you in its occasional absurdity.
But after a while, Cleopatra and Frankenstein completely lost me. The cast of characters becomes increasingly large and bizarre after the first few chapters, and the switching perspectives can be difficult to keep up with. There are some severely uncomfortable scenes — which I wouldn’t usually mind, but these are scenes between one-off characters, or characters who have little meaning to the story.
I understand how some of the conversations are meant to create parallel themes that relate to the main plot, but at some point I couldn’t help but feel like the author included some of these purely as intellectual bait. I don’t like it when books try to perform cleverness for the sake of it.
The book is supposed to frustrate you. Nothing any of these characters does is ever justified, logical, or indeed good for anything. And while this is a great literary pursuit — micro-analysing human flaws — I think it’s very easy to overdo it.
And the cherry on top (or, as we like to say in Romanian, the candy on the death cake), is the scene that made me give up entirely. There is an incredibly upsetting scene around halfway into the book, when Anders, Frank’s friend who Cleo has an affair with, touches himself in a public bathroom while fantasising about abusing Cleo in very disturbing and violent ways, which we get a graphic description for (because of course we do).
That’s when I had to pull the plug and remove the book from my Scribd queue. I simply couldn’t do it. I get why a character like Anders has such fantasies, but the whole setting it happened in (he was having lunch with his son), and his relationship with Cleo, everything around it made me feel sick.
This may definitely be just a case of me getting triggered. Other readers might go through the scene fine. Actually, a lot of them have done, praising the book for its masterful depiction of everything that’s wrong with people. Ordinary people, like you and me, who make mistakes and can be horrible under specific circumstances.
But all in all, it’s a no from me. Major disappointment. And while I could have maybe gotten over the scene in question, the book had started losing me way before that. So maybe it wasn’t meant to be. I was the Cleopatra to this book’s Frankenstein, if you will.
Other Reading Updates
After DNFing Cleopatra and Frankenstein, I decided to re-read The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. I absolutely loved this book the first time I read it, and I was excited to revisit it two years later, and in a different format. I read it digitally the first time around, while this time I get to enjoy the stunning 10-year anniversary edition.
I’ve been savouring the living soul out of this stunning book, noticing a lot of details I missed the first time, and diving even deeper into the story.
Aside from that, I’m reading Black Butterflies, by Priscilla Morris, one of the shortlisted books for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, so keep your eyes peeled for a longer feature where I detail all about the shortlist.
And that’s it for today’s Coffee Time Tuesday. What’s one popular book you had to abandon and why? Let me know in the comments!