A patchwork creation

Cover of Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson, with the letters XXX in foreground.

Frankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In Frankissstein: A Love Story, Jeanette Winterson plays in various ways on Mary Shelly‘s seminal work Frankenstein. Part of it follows Shelly as she conceives of the idea for the book. This alternates with a contemporary section in which a transgender doctor, Ry, falls in love with an AI maverick not so subtly named Victor Stein.

I’ve been a fan of past works by Winterson, particularly Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, but this book had none of that magic. Winterson throws out all the usual ideas that Shelly kicked off more than 200 years ago about what humans create and why. We still haven’t answered these questions adequately, which is why they have such lasting interest, but Winterson doesn’t advance anything in this book. About the only interesting idea is Stein’s fascination with Ry’s partial transformation of their body and his view that this is a new stage for humanity, where we can alter our bodies to our perceived gender. But like all the other ideas in the book, Winterson does little beyond raising it.

That might be okay if the writing weren’t so inconsistent. In one paragraph, the tense shifted back and forth, but I couldn’t tell if Winterson was trying to disorient the reader or just being sloppy. The cardboard characters tend to speak as if they’re giving each other TED talks, and in times of emotional tension, slip into an overwrought dramatic style that borders on the comical, almost like the actors in a old Carol Burnett skit. Winterson doesn’t use quotation marks, either, which can make it difficult to tell at times what’s dialogue and what’s just the narrator commenting on things.

After all the retellings of how Shelly created her novel and the infinite plays on the novel itself, Winterson uses both to ride the contemporary AI zeitgeist, but adds little that we haven’t read and heard about it over the past few years. There have been countless more thoughtful and entertaining movies, TV shows, and books about AI (Machines like Me, Klara and the Sun, Her, Ex Machina, etc.). If you haven’t already, read the wonderful Shelly novel, which has a thousand times more heart and thought put into it. This feels like it was patched together like Frankenstein’s monster–and maybe that was Winterson’s meta-intent, come to think of it, but it makes for an unsatisfying read.