The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam
Published by Scribner
Publication date: July 13, 2021
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Contemporary, Literary
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Asha has her life figured out. She’s a brilliant coder and has just landed a spot in a highly coveted tech lab at MIT, where she’s working on developing the holy grail of algorithms—instilling artificial intelligence with empathy. It’s her sole focus in life until she runs into Cyrus, her high school crush and everything changes. They fall in love, marry, and inadvertently create a software company that changes the face of social media. This is The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam.
Since she was a little girl Asha has dreamed of finding a way to make machines less frightening.
What if they had empathy? Then they wouldn’t be our rivals, they would just be better versions of us. We wouldn’t have to fear them, and we wouldn’t have to subjugate them. we could just try to be more like them, because they’d be the best of humanity.
She reconnects with Cyrus at a funeral for a high school teacher they both loved. An unusual and touching ritual created by Cyrus, it brings them together. As they grow closer Asha begins to see that Cyrus’s ‘work’ is not so different from hers. He’s a searcher who spends his days delving into the profound to the profane, pop culture to high art, the esoteric to the commonplace, and religious, mythological, and spiritual texts and traditions. His goal is the expansion of his own boundaries in an effort to bring people together through experiences. With his permission and help from his closest friend, Julian, Asha starts adding the multitude of varied sources Cyrus has absorbed into her module. Soon, they have the beginnings of an app that takes a users’ answers to 3 specific questions to give them a unique ritual for any number of typically religious occasions, such as baptisms, bat mitzvahs, funerals, weddings.
As things advance Asha and Julian run up against Cyrus’s adamant belief that whatever it becomes, the platform is not to be used to make money. He wants only to help people regain the feeling of real connection and community that has been largely lost to technology and social media. After much back and forth, the three come to an agreement on the basic principles of what they’re doing. Cyrus also comes up with a name: WAI, pronounced “why”, but standing for We Are Infinite. They are officially a startup with all that entails.
It’s no spoiler that the platform becomes massive, successful beyond anyone’s dreams. Cyrus’s concerns fall away as boundaries shift and even disappear. He’s the face of the product and CEO. He’s the vision and Asha, the creator. Inevitably, their professional roles bleed into their marriage, chiseling another facet into The Startup Wife. Asha watches as Cyrus, who had no interest in social media or technology, is hailed as the genius behind WAI. She’s shunted aside by business leaders and the media as the brown girl who wrote code. The fizzing excitement of her relationship with Cyrus is replaced with resentment and alienation.
I’ve seen a few reviews calling The Startup Wife formulaic. Maybe if you’re steeped in the Silicon Valley world, but I found it fresh and original. The premise of a brain (Asha) able to translate the ephemeral nature of spirituality into an infinite number of tangible outcomes is mind-blowing (pun intended). On a deeper level are the mechanics of friendship, power, and sexism in the tech world, all of which Anam captures with whip smart prose infused with snarky humor. Even better? Understanding technology is not necessary to enjoy The Startup Wife as the novel delivers on the promise of beguiling, contemporary reading.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Scribner in exchange for an honest review.*