From John Carreyrou’s award-winning Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup to Reeves Wiedeman’s WeWork shakedown Billion Dollar Loser, the real-life stories coming out of startup land are so far-fetched that you could be forgiven for thinking there’s no ground left for invention.
So what role can fiction play in this world with no boundaries – between home and work, love and business, purpose and profit? Tahmima Anam’s fourth novel attempts to answer this by taking inspiration from her experience as executive director of ROLI, a music technology startup founded by her husband.
Asha Ray is a “brightest of her generation” computer scientist halfway through her PhD when she bumps into her former high school crush, the charismatic Cyrus. Falling madly in love, they come up with the idea for a social networking app to give meaning to our everyday lives. Asha is the brains, Cyrus the frontman, and his friend Julian the business handler. Together they form the kind of triumvirate startup that dreams are made of: equal parts in a greater whole. But as WAI (We Are Infinite) takes off in ways Asha never imagined, it becomes obvious that one of them is more equal than the others.
While the startup journey may seem a well-trodden path, Anam is no novice when it comes to raising the emotional stakes. Her debut, A Golden Age, was shortlisted for the Costa and the Guardian first book awards, and three novels later, her experience shows in this deftly crafted tale. This is a novel of triangles: Asha, Cyrus and Julian; Asha, WAI and her career as a research scientist; Asha, Cyrus and WAI … It soon becomes apparent that in each of those triangles, it is Asha who is diminished – by the bro culture that dominates the startup world, by being a brown woman in a white man’s playground, by her own inherited assumptions about herself.
“Are you Stevie Wonder or are you the person who gave him all the time in the world to become a legend?” another character asks Asha. While on the surface this business, this relationship, this book, is all about Cyrus, Asha is its brains, its soul and its heart.
Anam knows of what she writes and is unafraid to call out the misogyny that dominates our so-called brave new world, often deploying biting wit to devastating effect. “You want to give this man his own religion?” Julian says of Cyrus near the start of book. In art, as in life, nobody listens.
Like all good startup propositions, The Startup Wife is glossy and readable and looks more obvious than it is, but unlike most of them it’s not dependent on smoke and mirrors to keep you invested.