This is an ambitious and more than slightly bonkers debut novel packed with original ideas and complicated characters. Maxon and Sunny, the husband and wife protagonists of the piece, are brilliant but complex and not especially easy to live with – for the reader or for themselves. Things open up, though, when we enter the world of Bubba, the couple's autistic son, for whom the reader has immediate empathy because he too has to live with his parents. And we already know how hard that is.
As the book opens, the family is living a seemingly happy Stepford existence in a quiet Virginia town. It's all so perfect that I pictured Sunny as Julianne Moore in a cross between Far From Heaven and The Hours: an updated 1950s housewife. Sunny was raised in rural Pennsylvania, by a mother, Emma, who ran away from an odd marriage to an evangelical missionary.
Maxon was Sunny's childhood sweetheart: he lived down the road and they first met when he was seven. Or in Maxon's thinking, when he was seven years, four months and 18 days old. Because, surprise, surprise, Maxon is also somewhere on the autistic spectrum, and Sunny sees Bubba as a miniature version of his father. Over the course of the story, we hear from Sunny, Maxon and Emma and the secrets of their relationships are revealed.
Maxon has grown up to be what he always wanted: a rocket scientist on board a mission bound for the Moon. Sunny is not happy: she's nine months pregnant with their second child, Bubba is having problems at school, and Maxon is not only not around, he's out of Earth's contact. Plus, she's feeling guilty about the terrible things she said to her husband just before he went into space: "It is all your fault, him being this way … you did it! It's your fucking genes, your brain, it's like little baby Maxon all over again." That can't be easy to hear.
Maxon's investigations into the limitations and possibilities of robots are funny, lyrical and fascinating. "Things that robots cannot do," he writes. "Show preference without reason (LOVE). Doubt rational decisions (REGRET). Trust data from a previously reliable source. (FORGIVE)." He thinks to himself, "I do what robots can't do. But why do I do these things?" As far as Sunny is concerned, he doesn't necessarily do these things properly anyway.
In the days after Maxon's Moon launch, his rocket is blown off course and Sunny has a car accident which jeopardises her pregnancy and – no small thing – tears asunder the wig she has worn all her life. (She was born with no hair, eyebrows or eyelashes.) At this point, she's beyond caring. She takes Bubba out of school, stops bothering to wear a wig and can no longer rein in her feelings about her mother's terminal illness.
This is a novel about the strangeness of being human. Lydia Netzer says she wrote it when she was pregnant with her first child and feeling "paralysed with fear that I was too weird, too self-absorbed, too unskilled to have a child, and that whatever baby had the bad luck to be born of my uterus would be permanently scarred by my failings". Hopefully, she feels better now. Or at least, a lot less alone in her imagined weirdness. After meeting Sunny and Maxon, I know I do.