The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam

The Startup Wife is a novel about big tech, dreams, and the reality that follows, as a tech startup becomes something more than its co-founder imagined. Whilst working on her PhD, Asha reconnects with her high school crush, Cyrus, and they fall into a whirlwind romance. Newly married, they and their friend Jules come up with an idea for a social network based around Cyrus’ ability to get to the bottom of what rituals individuals crave in their lives, tailored to their interests. As Asha codes the algorithm for this alternative to religion, Cyrus’ charisma makes him the face of the platform, and soon they’re the tech ones to watch out for. As popularity grows, Asha starts to feel like Cyrus—and men with money—are making the decisions, and when a big change is decided against her will, their platform might not be the same again.

I was drawn to this novel by the premise, and particularly by the look at a female programmer and co-founder in the tech startup world. A lot of the narrative is focused around the building of the company and the challenges as it becomes successful, and how Asha and Cyrus’ relationship works in the background, and then near the end the main narrative tension happens, after some foreshadowing comments earlier. This means it can feel a little slow at times, and possibly more so for people who don’t enjoy the side helping of startup/hipster satire, but Asha is a gripping main character, and there’s some vivid supporting characters too. 

The big tension later in the narrative (without wanting to give spoilers, though this might make it guessable so you might want to skip this paragraph if you’re worried) is very similar to an episode of Black Mirror, which seems to possibly be alluded to in the novel. Though it works in the story, after the build up it was a bit disappointing for the conflict (and inevitable backfire) to be something already in a TV show, especially as the platform itself is a clever way of imagining new technology and also building a story around a character who has to play a central part in it. The narrative also has a subplot around the apocalypse, with a tech incubator that has a survivalist focus coming into play as the novel ends with the start of the pandemic, which felt like a fitting note if a bit weird given we’re still very much living through it.

I enjoyed The Startup Wife, particularly Asha and what happens as she realises she isn’t being given enough credit for her role in basically creating the platform. At times it felt quite a bit like The Social Network meets Black Mirror, but as I like both of those, and it also comes with a sharp look at the treatment of women in the tech industry, this wasn’t a bad thing. It’s a very modern novel and one that does benefit from an awareness of big tech/issues around social media platforms to some extent, but is also generally enjoyable as a story of what happens when you build a business and a marriage at once.