#283 – The Perfect Wife by JP Delaney

If you woke up in the body of a robot, having died years before, who are you really? You’re not the deceased, not really. At best, you’re a simulation. Yet you have their memories and are autonomous. You exist. You think. You feel. But can you seriously consider taking over the life they once had? And what if the circumstances of your predecessor’s death aren’t exactly what they appear to be?

The Perfect Wife by JP Delaney takes this idea and uses it in a story you have probably seen before. A woman wakes up with little memory, married to a loving husband, but having suffered a tragedy and only regaining themselves years later. Then they start to learn there are things she doesn’t know about her past, and her husband isn’t telling her everything…

Usually, this kind of story involves amnesia or a coma, but here the protagonist is dead before the story even starts, and what we have is her… well, what is she? Her husband, a tech giant beyond the likes of Gates or Musk, says he was obsessed with bringing her back. That she was everything to him. That she was the perfect wife. But is there more to it than that?

The setting is what I like to call “present day with a quantum leap.” The idea of a ComBot (companion robot) is a quantum leap achievement far out of our present day capabilities, yet the book is riddled with contemporary references to technology and culture, often using present-day or recent past examples to illustrate a concept or draw a comparison.

Abby, the protagonist, is a ComBot, the first of her kind. Her journey is one not just of remembering her lost life (or the life of who she’s replacing) but questioning the nature of her own existence, and the potential place of A.I. in the world. While there is a lot of existential angst going on, her story is not all self-reflection and philosophy. She has a son with autism who she’s missed five years of and is trying to reconnect with. She has a husband she has deep feelings for, but also has growing concerns about. 

Her husband, Tim, is a tech visionary who has spent the last five years perfecting the means to bring Abby back. Afraid that people will assume he did this for crude and carnal reasons, he did not give her genitalia. He tells her that they had a very happy marriage and that he wants to have that again, and the memories that come back to Abby seem to confirm this.

Only she starts getting self-deleting text messages on her phone, warning her not to trust Tim. That he lies.

I enjoy it when an author decides to play with language and storytelling in different ways, and this book chooses to tell the story from two rarely used perspectives.

You see, most stories are told in the third person—using terms like “he” or “she.” Less common is first person, where it’s told from the narrator’s point of view, using “I.”

The Perfect Wife uses a perspective almost never used in books: second person. That is to say, “you.” So as you’re reading the story, it always refers to what “you” are doing. Which effectively makes you, the reader, the protagonist, which is very appropriate given that this is a journey of discovery and questioning the nature of identity.

For your part, the sense of shock returns. The driver’s disgust is nothing to the revulsion and self-loathing you feel.

It also means that by “being” this character, you have no doubts as to whether or not she is real. To tell this story from the third person, you’d always wonder whether or not she was anything more than a simulation. Even telling it from first person separates you. But using second person leaves no room for doubt as to what she is thinking and feeling. It’s happening to “you,” after all.

And then there are short chapters interspersed throughout the book that tell another side of the story, that of the evolving relationship between the main characters before Abby’s death. While it’s technically first person, there is no single point of view being used. It’s told from the point of view of the group. This turns the company itself into a collective character. Individuals are sometimes mentioned, but when it comes to observations of how things happened, it’s always “we.” 

The very first we knew of Tim’s plan to hire an artist-in-residence was when we heard him talking to Mike about it.

Again, this has a deliberate effect on the reader. On the one hand, we’re not seeing individual opinions, we’re seeing the zeitgeist of the whole. The point of view that everyone involved would more or less agree on. In some ways, this makes it more honest, but perhaps also more watered down. This also immerses us in the corporate structure they exist in, where individuality is not exactly prized or relevant.

As opposed to the second person perspective that effectively makes us the narrator, this collective first person is like taking down a statement from a group of bystanders. In some ways, we’re even further removed from events than a third person perspective.

I can certainly recommend this story. It manages to be both a domestic thriller and a science fiction exploration of A.I. at the same time, the theme complementing the story rather than just acting as window dressing.  And the unconventional choice of narrative perspectives is a welcome one.

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