book review: Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson




FRANKISSSTEIN by Jeanette Winterson
Grove Press, October 1, 2019


Frankissstein is a bold, bawdy, and tremendously clever creation; the first of its two storylines follows Mary Shelley as she writes Frankenstein, and the second follows a host of characters in the present-day, chronicling the love story between Ry, a transgender doctor, and Victor Stein, a scientist with a passion for artificial intelligence.  The thematic interplay between these two narratives is genius, and Winterson brilliantly highlights the timelessness of the classic she’s riffing off, as themes of death, gender, and bodily limitations underscore both narratives.

But for me, the storyline in the past was the much more unique and engaging one.  These chapters were just begging to be developed into a full-blown novel fictionalizing Mary Shelley, and frankly, if that’s all Frankissstein was, I’m sure I’d give it 5 stars with no reservations.  Though these chapters were largely figments of Winterson’s imagination, the parallels she draws between Mary Shelley’s personal life (what we know of it, anyway) and the content of Frankenstein were incredibly stimulating.

“I have love, but I cannot find love’s meaning in this world of death.  Would there were no babies, no bodies; only minds to contemplate beauty and truth.  If we were not bound to our bodies we should not suffer so.  Shelley says that he wishes he could imprint his soul on a rock, or a cloud, or some non-human form, and when we were young I felt despair that his body would disappear, even though he remained.  But now all I see is the fragility of bodies; these caravans of tissue and bone.

At Peterloo, if every man could have sent his mind and left his body at home, there could have been no massacre.  We cannot hurt what is not there.”

The issues I had with the present-day chapters were twofold: first, I found some of the philosophizing on artificial intelligence to be overwrought, and second, the humor was a series of constant misses for me.  Winterson often employs humor in this novel to drive home the absurdity behind certain characters’ misogyny, but she would make her point and then continue to bash you over the head with jokes about sex-bots; it got very old for me.

In spite of this, the parallels between the two storylines were brilliantly rendered, and the overall impression I’m left with of this book is that I am very impressed, and I think this would have made a truly interesting addition to the Booker shortlist.

Thank you to Netgalley and Grove Press for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

You can pick up a copy of Frankissstein here on Book Depository.


12 thoughts on “book review: Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson

  1. Excellent review! I’m so glad you enjoyed this one overall. I was invested enough to get over it, but I can absolutely see what you mean about the somewhat heavy-handed humour. And yes, Jeanette, if you’re reading this, GIVE US THE FULL MARY SHELLEY NOVEL WE NEED AND DESERVE.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The humor in particular frustrated me because there were certain moments where it was SO GOOD AND CLEVER and then she just… way overdid it. But on the whole this book was absolutely brilliant! Ugh, where is our Mary Shelley novel?!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Aaaah, great review! It’s too bad the present timeline never quite came together for you, but I am glad you appreciated the Mary Shelley content so much! Even though the whole thing worked well together for me, I would be thrilled to see a full fictionalized account of Shelley’s life from Winterson. That was some excellent content indeed.

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    • Thank you!!! Yes, the overall effect was absolutely brilliant but I would NOT have said no to more traditional historical fiction about Mary Shelley. I don’t even usually love fictionalizations of real people in historical novels, but this was REALLY working for me! (I said that and then I thought of like, three examples that worked for me, so maybe that is something I like?!)

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      • Hmmm I can’t actually think of any other historical people that have worked well for me in fiction. Then again, I haven’t read much biographic fiction… maybe I should? I feel like for me it might depend on preexisting interest in the person, but I guess I won’t for sure know until I try!

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      • If you’re interested in Alexander the Great at all, Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault is brilliant! It’s the first book that comes to mind when I think of biographic fiction, because it’s so heavy on the biography, and Renault’s research is impeccable. It’s a bit dense though so it’s kind of a ‘project book’ – I actually need to get back to that series at some point.

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      • Ooh, that sounds good, thanks! Alexander the Great is a historical figure I would definitely appreciate brushing up my knowledge on, and it’s good to know it’s been researched so well. I will look into this one!

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  3. Such a great review! Was really lucky to see Winterson at the Edinburgh International Book Festival back in August, where she was discussing Frankissstein alongside the dangers and ethics of AI – but although it was fascinating (and hearing her read her work was amazing), I’m with you about some of the humour. The sexbot jokes got a little stale, even in a forty-minute reading.

    Also, just from the talk, I TOTALLY agree that we both need and deserve the Mary Shelley novel. Winterson was more than passionate about Shelley and spoke about Shelley’s life & experiences incredibly; Winterson writing about Shelley would be electrifying.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oooh that sounds WONDERFUL, I’m glad you had a good time! Oh man, I think the sexbot jokes would have been even more insufferable when spoken aloud – there was this whole 5-page monologue from Ron Lord toward the beginning that I basically just skimmed because it was getting so old. Some of the humor was genius, but so much of it was just… too much.

      But yes, ultimately a brilliant book! This was my first Jeanette Winterson and I’m left with the impression that she is an incredibly clever woman, so I imagine hearing her talk about Shelley and AI would have been magnificent. I hope you enjoy the rest of the book if you end up reaching for it!

      Liked by 1 person

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