JP Delaney’s The Perfect Wife opens with a quote from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “When Pygmalion saw the way these women behaved, he was disgusted by the many flaws nature has instilled in the female sex, and for a long time lived as a bachelor, without a wife to share his bed.” The translations vary, but the story remains the same: Pygmalion was so disappointed by the realities of the female existence that he carved the most perfect woman he could conceive of out of ivory.
Some readers might be tempted to skim over epigraphs. Without the context of a full novel, they can often seem enigmatic and rather unhelpful. But Ovid’s sentence is the perfect way to introduce Delaney’s tale of a Silicon Valley tycoon and his made-to-order, robotic wife – and the feelings of repulsion it encapsulates about women are the central theme that brings this gripping psychological thriller to life.
When Abbie Cullen wakes up from what feels like a dream, she’s certain she’s human, until her husband Tim tells her she’s a “cobot”, aka a humanlike machine whose presence “may alleviate the loss of a loved one, providing solace, company and emotional support in the aftermath of a bereavement”. In other words, according to Tim, the real Abbie died and he missed her so much he built her again, as a robot, to fill the void his beloved wife left in his life.
From the get-go, something feels off. One obvious guess might be that Abbie’s not really a robot, but Delaney (who writes under a pseudonym and has penned two previous psychological thrillers, The Girl Before and Believe Me) dispels that theory from the onset. Abbie really is a robot. Her skin peels off like a wetsuit. She cannot cry. She has no genitals. She’s a marvel of artificial intelligence technology, born out of the brain of her genius husband. Tim hastily takes her home (against the advice of his right-hand man who worries the prototype isn’t ready) and, for all intents and purposes, tries to find domestic bliss with his new AI-powered partner. Abbie finds out she – or rather, her human self – is the mother to a young son named Danny, who has childhood disintegrative disorder, a severe form of autism.
As Abbie the robot searches for her place in a human world – and in Tim’s and Danny’s lives – memories of Abbie’s human existence begin to come back to her. Some details, of course, don’t make sense to her. Why is she receiving text messages from an anonymous sender known only as “FRIEND”? Why did Abbie the human keep a secret iPad?
Answers are delivered, naturally, in small, mysterious tidbits. Flashbacks shed new light on Human Abbie’s relationship with Tim, and how she found herself in his path in the first place. Through the character of Tim, Delaney does a wonderful job of deconstructing the archetype of the Silicon Valley wunderkind – who in this case is a man equal parts admired, feared and loathed by his employees. Artificial intelligence might seem like a risky plot device, and the premise of the novel itself is tricky at best, but Delaney pulls it off brilliantly, with an intoxicating knack for suspense. This is the kind of novel ugly words like “unputdownable” were invented for.
With the tale of Abbie, Delaney delivers a sharp reflection on misogyny. As characters, both Abbies (the robotic one and the human one) are fully fleshed out and believable as women – a point of pride for Delaney, who once told The New York Times that one of the reasons he likes using a pseudonym is that readers rarely assume his gender. “People can’t tell from the initials if I’m a man or a woman — and I’ve been really gratified that many readers have assumed from the way I’ve written from two female perspectives that I’m actually a woman,” he told the newspaper in 2017.
With every thriller must come a dizzying plot twist and an unforeseeable denouement, as is definitely the case here. Some readers might wish Abbie’s story had a slightly different ending, but regardless, everything about The Perfect Wife feels earned and satisfying. Thrillers, after all, are more about the journey than they are about the destination – and this journey is a captivating, deeply engrossing one.
‘The Perfect Wife’ will be published in the UK by Quercus on 8 August (£12.99) and in the US by Penguin Random House on 6 August ($18.90)
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies