A Bangladeshi American woman drops out of her MIT doctoral program to become a coding wiz, and then writes an algorithm powering an innovative new social networking app. An encyclopedically brilliant white man becomes the charismatic savior-guide worshiped by millions of the app's users. The couple have the kind of rare work-life marriage that is both perfect and enviable. Until it's not.
"The Startup Wife," Tahmima Anam's latest, is a satirical and insightful sendup of startup culture and is entirely different from her acclaimed trilogy about Bangladesh's struggle for independence. While the latter drew on her parents' personal histories, this one draws on her own experiences as a board member with her husband's startup.
Our fictional startup wife, Asha Ray, has a blessed life: a supportive family; a gorgeous high school crush, Cyrus Jones, who marries her two months after coming back into her life; brains that help her create a revolutionary, one-of-a-kind app, WAI (We Are Infinite), with her husband and his best friend.
The app adds meaning to the lives of those who don't want organized religion but who do value rituals. Answer a few questions about what's most important to you and it suggests a customized ritual for whatever event you want to commemorate.
WAI takes off at blazing speed and makes the co-founders overnight paper millionaires. Venture capitalists eventually want to honor it with generous funds. Users become evangelists. Employees happily sacrifice their waking hours to it.
When things go wrong, it's because of reasons familiar to those who know this milieu. Women, especially women of color like Asha, are marginalized. Men, especially white men like Cyrus, are celebrated for barely any accomplishments. Moral and ethical considerations are sidelined for personal power and financial gain. When the climactic and inevitable disaster arrives, it's a satisfying validation of what we know about startup bro culture.
The real story unfolding here is that of Asha's feminist awakening. Her evolving epiphanies are served up in an engagingly sarcastic and ironic voice with sharply observed details. Realizing that her idealized, boundary-less world is a diminished one compared with that of her privileged white male counterparts, she stands up for herself. Coming to terms with her own complicity in her condition, she decides she will no longer be "Cyrused" by her husband.
As empowering and welcome as this non-victimhood narrative sounds, there are some off-key notes. While the supporting characters, from Asha's Bangladeshi American family members to her Utopian family members, are effective foils during each milestone of Asha's journey, the latter sometimes succumb to well worn stereotypes. Thankfully, with the former, Anam doesn't dwell on tired South Asian family tropes other than to skillfully poke fun at them.
And the most important epiphany, where Asha concludes that, while Cyrus "displayed some epically bad judgment. … I gave him power over me. I gave him all the privilege in the world so he could turn around and mess me up," minimizes the longstanding complex gender, race and class toxicities that plague the tech world.
That said, within the still-evolving South Asian diasporic literary traditions, this novel is a much-needed addition because it gives us the experiences of our cultures and communities here and now in ways that don't erase or exoticize but celebrate them.
Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, book critic and instructor at Writing Workshops Dallas, and the podcast host of "Desi Books."
The Startup Wife
By: Tahmima Anam.
Publisher: Scribner, 304 pages, $26.