The Plus One by Sarah Archer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Meet Kelly. Twenty-nine, valedictorian, and a brilliant robotics engineer to boot. While her professional life is on the rise, her personal life is struggling to get off the ground.
With her sister’s wedding looming and her attempts to find a date becoming increasingly cringe-worthy, Kelly does the only logical thing: she builds her own boyfriend, if only to get her mom off her back about being perpetually single. Kelly planned to pass off her robotic masterpiece, Ethan, as her other half just until the wedding. But then she can’t resist keeping him around even after the “I do’s.”
Ethan is just too perfect–gorgeous, attentive, smart (he does have Google for a brain), all topped off by a mechanical heart endlessly devoted to her. When Kelly is with him, she becomes a more confident, spontaneous version of herself. Plus, for the first time, her mother is actually proud of her.
But as the struggle to keep Ethan’s true identity a secret threatens to detonate the career Kelly has worked so hard for, she knows she has to kiss her toy boy goodbye.
There’s just one problem: she’s falling for him.
Truly speaking, I wouldn’t classify this as a romance, though plenty of people have already shelved it as such. This book is more about Kelly letting go of her control issues and giving love a chance. Kelly has always had trouble with relationships and interacting with people in general, due to her social anxiety. When forced by her mother to acquire a date for her sister’s wedding, Kelly instead builds one. While balancing her upcoming project to make a realistic medical companion bot and her mother’s constant intrusion into her life, she comes up with the idea to make the perfect man for herself. Initially impressed with her own work, she slowly grows to love Ethan, and falls into the rabbit hole of letting people believe he is a real person to the point where she doesn’t want to let go. There’s a random blackmail plot and some friendship drama, too.
Kelly’s presence in her family is a big indication of where her issues arose from: she is mostly overlooked as a middle child, and her accomplishments ignored by them, despite being a woman in STEM. Her parents’ stale marriage doesn’t give her any hope for love either, so she mostly thinks she is fine being alone. However, being with Ethan makes her realize how lonely she was, and how much the presence of another fills a space in her life. The ‘romance’ with Ethan can hardly be called so, because while he is responsive and has a capability to learn, at the end of the day he is like a highly personalized AI assistant. But him being the ‘perfect man’ sends Kelly’s life spinning, as she lies and lies further to show her mother that she is capable of having a stable relationship, and also herself buys into the fantasy of keeping him forever (I have watched Humans, and it wouldn’t end well mind you). And there was a lot to unpack in that family’s dynamics, but it doesn’t really get its due; it builds up to something (at one point, I thought the only way was for her to confront her mother about her nightmarish intrusive behavior) but then fizzles out in a disappointing climax. There is closure after that, but it fits oddly with the pace of the novel, and feels abrupt.
Overall, I’d say this is was a nice exploration of loneliness and the concept of love in modern times, but the story lacked a proper ending to tie it all together.
Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from G P Putnam’s Sons, via Edelweiss.
Releases on July 2, 2019