Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Book Review: "A Working Theory of Love" by Scott Hutchins

Relationships can be complicated. Neill Bassett knows this well. His marriage imploded nearly as soon as it started, despite the fact he and his wife dated for a long time before getting married. And his relationship with his father, a strict, traditionally Southern doctor, was definitely fractious until his father committed suicide while Neill was in college.

Yet Neill's father isn't quite out of his life. When he died, he left behind thousands of pages of journals chronicling daily occurrences, interactions, and his philosophies on life. While one publication, which ran an excerpt from one of the journals, called Neill's father, "The Southern Samuel Pepys," these journals are incredibly detailed, and incredibly boring.

But the banality of journals hasn't stopped Amiante Systems, an artificial intelligence company, from buying them. In an attempt to build the first computer to pass the Turing test, in which judges try to distinguish the dialogue of a computer from that of a human, Amiante Systems has hired Neill—who has a marketing background and no knowledge of computer programming—to input thousands of journal pages into the computer in order to give it language. The computer begins "speaking" (through an IM or chat function) in Neill's father's own words, which leaves him unsettled. And then the computer starts asking questions about Neill's childhood.

While his emotional state is in flux, Neill meets Rachel, a much younger woman who he initially intended to be nothing more than a one-night stand, yet he finds himself continually drawn to and repelled by her. He keeps running into his ex-wife, Erin, who lives nearby, which brings to light his unresolved feelings about their relationship and its dissolution. And another unsuccessful romantic dalliance has the potential to jeopardize the success his company is achieving with "Dr. Bassett" (the name for the computer).

When Neill discovers that one year is missing from his father's journals—the year Neill was born—he's convinced that this may be the key to his father's suicide and the difficulties in their relationship. Yet what he discovers only brings more uncertainty and causes him to feel more vulnerable as he continues working with the computer.

A Working Theory of Love is a really well-written and emotionally compelling book, and it raises some interesting questions. What would we do if we could ask a dead loved one questions you never could when they were alive? Are there questions about our lives and the relationships our loved ones have with us and others that we shouldn't want answers to? Where does love come from, the heart or the head?

I really enjoyed this book a great deal, although I felt the subplot about a cult-like group Rachel becomes involved in was somewhat unnecessary. And Rachel's character wasn't drawn to be as intriguing as others, so you can't quite understand Neill's feelings for her. But in the end, this is a book that makes you feel, with your brain and your heart.

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