Book review: The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam

the startup wifeAsha Ray has a bad time in high school – she’s clever but she doesn’t fit in socially, and feels set apart by her Bangladeshi background. She also has a crush on the poised and unconventional Cyrus, until he disappears suddenly one day.

Years later, she has moved on. She has found her tribe at university, made friends, and her expertise in IT has earned her a place on a prestigious postgraduate programme. She feels secure with the support of her liberal, spiky parents and sister.

Then Cyrus comes back into her life. She is bowled over by his looks, his curiosity and his fascination with the world’s religions. He is convinced he can give people connection and ritual that fits with their contemporary, secular lifestyle.

Along with his best friend, Jules, a privileged but unhappy guy who has already built one startup, they decide to start a website using Asha’s coding skills, Cyrus’s vision and Jules marketing smarts. But success leads to pressure in Asha’s marriage, as Cyrus’s charisma overshadows her hard work.

The Startup Wife is a book about the ethical implications of tech in the same way that Dallas is a drama about oil. Whether you think that’s a good or a bad thing depends on where your interests lie. If you’re looking for a contemporary story about a nerdy, unconfident woman negotiating marriage, family and friendships, with some nice zeitgeisty references, then you’ll probably enjoy this.

There is some fun and perceptive skewering of tech bros, venture capitalists and the eccentric people who are determined to upend every assumption and norm but in doing so, can’t help establishing new conventions of their own. The female entrepreneurs provide an interesting counterpoint, with their different focuses and the way they negotiate an overwhelmingly male world.

However, I didn’t find the frenzy around Asha and Cyrus’s business convincing. The suggestion is that she will use her background in researching empathy to create an artificial intelligence that could understand your deepest emotional and spiritual needs. What they have instead is a fairly standard recommendation engine – you answer a few questions and it pulls together a ritual based on your answers.

I was also unconvinced that people in large numbers would become devoted to the site and stick around to form groups. If you want a cool naming ceremony for your baby, once the naming’s done wouldn’t you move on to the next thing (and post the pictures to your existing networks rather than engaging in a new one)?

We see the way Cyrus is able to charm and manipulate the people who are close to him, and how their behaviour mirrors that of the site’s fans, although I’m still not sure what was so compelling about him to so many people. The people who fall under his spell via the site are largely in the background of the novel so we don’t get to know what makes them susceptible.

The Startup Wife is an enjoyable enough novel but it feels like it didn’t deliver on its original promise of examining why people are drawn to ritual in a secular world and how tech can both fulfil and exploit human needs.

I received a copy of The Startup Wife from the publisher via Netgalley.
View The Startup Wife on Goodreads

Try instead: Read my review of I Still Dream by James Smythe, which beautifully explores the issues of artificial intelligence, consciousness and humanity, and also features a female protagonist.

1 Comment

  1. I really enjoyed her first novel, but this one sounds quite different. Although I tend to agree, that people don’t move easily from a social network online once they’ve established themselves there, it does sound as though the tech side of this is subordinate to the relationships, so maybe that’s just another kind of novel altogether…

    Liked by 1 person

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