Whenever my spouse asks me what the book I’m reading is about, it is a running joke that I will respond with “people.” Generally speaking, I prefer books with a strong emphasis on characters as opposed to plot, so it’s always a little difficult to describe what I am reading. If others disparage a book by saying “nothing happens,” chances are I will love it. I enjoy reading about the inner world of characters and following how they navigate their ways in the world. Books that explore the sometimes surprising, often messy, nature of human relationships are among my favorites.
A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins is one of those novels that eludes an easy description; it is a book about people. Neill Bassett, Jr. is doing little more than existing after the demise of his brief, young marriage. Comforted by routine and simple pleasures, he spends the majority of his time working at Amiante Systems where he is paid to speak to his dead father. Amiante is an artificial intelligence company, and Neill’s father, Dr. Neill Bassett, kept numerous diaries. In fact, Dr. Bassett amassed over five thousand pages of his day-to-day life up to 1995, when he committed suicide. Using these pages, Amiante is hoping to create a sentient machine—one that can pass the Turing test for artificial intelligence. As Neill relies more and more on these conversations with his father to anchor his days, he becomes confused about the father he experienced in reality and the father he is creating through these conversations. The more he discovers about his father’s life, the less he seems to know him.
Matters are complicated by Neill’s growing feelings for Rachel, a free spirited, conflicted, and probably too young for him one-night-stand. Despite his feelings for her, Neill’s passivity and fear prevent making any kind of authentic, deeper connection. It is finally Dr. Bassett’s insistence on knowing what happened in the year 1976 that prompts Neill to return to his childhood home and confront the unknowns of his father’s life. This is a beautifully written and profound book about the extent to which we may ever know another person—particularly those to whom we are closest.