cover image The Startup Wife

The Startup Wife

Tahmima Anam. Scribner, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-1-982156-18-3

Heavy lies the high-tech crown in Anam’s spectacular fourth novel (after her Bengal trilogy). Asha Ray, 30, a brilliant computer coder whose PhD project at Harvard involves the “reverse engineering of the brain,” reconnects with Cyrus Jones, a high school crush she hasn’t seen in 13 years who has become an itinerant “humanist spirit guide,” officiating weddings and baptisms for nonreligious people. She abandons her research and the two marry in an impulsive city hall wedding, then move into her parents’ house on Long Island. Asha and Cyrus find work at Utopia, a tech company whose mission is to “save humanity from the apocalypse.” There, Asha throws herself into creating an “Empathy Module” algorithm for a social networking app inspired by Cyrus’s spiritual work. The app, a “virtual parish” called WAI (We Are Infinite) becomes a global sensation, and, after Cyrus gets the credit for it, his charismatic personality turns him into a “new messiah” and threatens their marriage. A startling ending framed by a deadly, Covid-like pandemic drives the plot close to a disastrous abyss as a trend of “death ritual groups” sparked by the app causes moral and ethical dilemmas. Anam provides a piercing perspective on marital and business institutions and gender bias and cultural clashes, and weaves in rich local color as Asha grows reacquainted with her childhood home and her parents’ Muslim community. This is a powerful statement on the consequences of public achievement on private happiness. Agent: Sarah Chalfant, Canongate. (July)