JP Delaney quotes Ovid’s myth of “Pygmalion” at the opening of his novel, but as I read it I couldn’t stop thinking about Victor Frankenstein. This is a domestic thriller with a side of sci-fi. The main character is — for all intents and purposes — an emotionally advanced AI that is capable of empathy. (Creating an AI with empathy seems paradoxical since empathy is unique to human beings, the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes.) It — or AI-Abbie — is also capable of recalling moments from the life of the woman of which she’s a “replica.” I won’t rehash the synopsis but essentially a man pieces together a prototype of his dead wife to bring her back to life. That seems the gist of the story. Or so you think …
I love reading AI fiction, which isn’t always done well because it’s difficult to make AI’s “real” to the world they’re set in. Often storytellers deal in the future to make it easier. Delaney’s story is set in the present time, which presents several problems. We obviously can buy into the AI idea. We see it in the news and advancements have been made. We’re already having conversations about the rights of sex robots and whether it’s acceptable to create ones with rape settings. So the reader gets this world. And of course Abbie’s husband, Tim, is a tech bazillionaire with carte-blanche to experiment on/with/for whatever the heck he wants. We’ve seen that, too. We live it. But one of the silliest leaps Delaney makes — and one that makes me incredulous — is that AI-Abbie is so lifelike people mistake it for the dead wife. Um, what? This happens several times and is actually an important plot point. This doesn’t work and isn’t going to work no matter the suspension of belief for fiction. The story falls apart with that alone.
But it does have notable qualities. The writing is good and specific. The setting feels real and sometimes the characters seem real — though I may be reaching since all of the characters, with the exception of Danny, are basically stereotypes. I mean even Victor Frankenstein had some redeeming qualities, but Tim Scott is a cardboard cutout of demented and pathetic. He’s really not a good character in any way. So, nuance is missing big time here. AI-Abbie is cardboard as well, but it’s a cobot, so it’s acceptable — or at least, expected. But Abbie Cullen, Tim’s wife, is dreadful. She’s uber gorgeous and artsy and cool and free-spirited and every man wants to do her. No, just no. Delaney’s characters have no complexity, which makes the book feel like junk food, and that’s just hard to digest. I will say I think there’s an interesting dynamic between Danny, who suffers from Heller’s syndrome, a rare form of autism, and the AI. The way Delaney explores empathy here and how the brain functions, as well as sensitivity to environments, are brilliant. To me, that’s the value, but he covers this truffle in mud.
At this point, I’ve got to talk about plot to get at my next few points, so if you are worried about spoilers please stop reading.
STOP. SPOILERS AHEAD.
Too many writers take the seismic hit that is “Gone Girl” and try to replicate it. I really feel like Delaney was mashing some original ideas about AI and autism with GG. This makes the book an epic fail for me, and a patchwork of Frankensteinean proportions.
But also we’ve got a serious problem from the get-go. Delaney outright lies to his reader. AI-Abbie discovers some of Abbie’s secrets, leading to the suggestion she faked her death to leave Tim. Once the AI realizes that, Tim confirms he believes Abbie is still alive and he’s built the AI to find her. Okay, so we’re on a slightly different trajectory now, but fine. Yet, Tim is lying. Tim killed Abbie. Tim built AI-Abbie for who knows why. Tim is a psycho. Tim is a liar. That’s the twist? That bit at the end is the twist? But it’s not really a twist, is it? It’s an outright lie that makes the whole story fall apart because WHY would Tim build an AI-Abbie and set it on some goose chase to discover what he’s known all along? He killed Abbie. Um, it makes no sense. His motives are non-existent. The best thrillers give the reader the WHY, not the WHAT and WHO. Tim has absolutely no reason to do what he does. The cobot could easily be set up to live with AI-Tim and together they could raise Danny however they wanted. Tim has sole custody already.
Okay, so I blame this “Gone Girl” craze that has made thriller writers confused about what makes a solid domestic thriller. You can plot a missing person. That’s fine. But the characters need authentic motives — at least authentic to the fictional world you’ve created — to do what they do. Otherwise, the writer comes off as pulling ideas from the air.
It really does all fall apart at the end — because of the outright lie — but also for the deus ex machina. I won’t get into details, but it is completely unsatisfactory. For me, it’s not that it’s open-ended, because I don’t really think it is. It’s simply lazy. Again the idea seems pulled out of a hat. It reads like Delaney painted the story into a corner and need a forklift to get it out. I also think the reader would’ve enjoyed AI-Tim giving Tim his comeuppance. I mean, he considers it. Why not satisfy us a little and let us see it? We kind of earned it, didn’t we?
Book Title: The Perfect Wife: A Novel
Author: JP Delaney
Publisher: Random House