REVIEW: How to Build a Boyfriend from Scratch – Sarah Archer

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Author: Sarah Archer (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: HarperCollins

Genre: Science fiction, romcom

In the US, this book is titled The Plus One.

Dating is hard. Being dateless at your perfect sister’s wedding is harder.

Meet Kelly. A brilliant but socially awkward robotics engineer desperately seeking a wedding date…

Meet Ethan. Intelligent, gorgeous, brings out the confidence Kelly didn’t know she had and … not technically human. (But no one needs to know that.)

With her sister’s wedding looming and everyone in the world on her case about being perpetually single, Kelly decides to take her love life into her own hands – and use her genius skills to create Ethan.

But when she can’t resist keeping her new boy toy around even after the ‘I do’s’, Kelly knows she needs to hit the off switch on this romance, fast. Only, when you’ve found (well, made) your perfect man, how do you kiss him goodbye?

I love SFF, and I love romantic comedies, and I truly believe that the world would be greatly improved if there could be more overlap between the two genres. SFF has tropes a-plenty for mining for romantic comedy, and there’s literally no limits to the romcom hijinks available when you add in the potential for space flight, time travel, robots, and/or spells. Until now, the only one I’ve previously encountered was Crosstalk – if you know of any others, please bat them my way.

The premise to this seems simple enough – there’s a woman who is dedicated to her job, but what her mother really wants is for her to get a date for her sister’s wedding. Fortunately, Kelly’s job is in robotics, and she’s currently working on a project to create an AI robot so lifelike that people can’t tell it from a real human being. We then get the set-up of Kelly trying to work with the consultant psychologist on the project, who we are told is hot, and having a sparky fall out with him over how the robot should work.

As a fan of romcoms, I thought I had sussed the premise there and then. Kelly was going to build her robot boyfriend but also have a will-they-won’t-they with the psychologist, learn to deal with her issues, and realise that she’s actually in love with the real, human man and not with her robot. That’s the sort of structure you’d get in a wacky hijinks romcom set up like this.

Except we don’t see the psychologist again (which is why I can’t actually remember his name right now) and thus I lost track of my usual uncanny ability to see how the plot was going to spool out. I instead had to rely entirely on Kelly making the right judgements and, honestly, at times I really didn’t trust her.

When the book started, I could really relate to Kelly. She seemed down-to-earth and easy to understand in her social anxieties and resignation to her family’s wedding fervour. As the story progressed, however, it seemed to become clear that Kelly clearly had a lot of issues she needed to address. Her control-freak nature made sense as a result of her fear of failure and her social anxieties, but while I thought the bland, no-risk apartment and wardrobe was a great way to telegraph this, I was a bit blindsided by the plan to steal parts from work to build a robot boyfriend and get away with it.

Hear me out: I have social anxiety. I am currently working on trying to build a robot that is indistinguishable from a human being to act as a companion for people who are lonely and who need care. I have the ability and parts to build that robot, so I do. But instead of telling anyone, I smuggle it out of the building and pretend he is a real human, and I intend to decommission him as soon as he has served his purpose, thus massively increasing my levels of anxiety. It seemed strange to me that Kelly didn’t twig that she could get away with an awful lot if she simply made notes of everything she had taken and kept a record of it as a ‘research project’ to test out the functionality of her final companion robot, that way she was entirely covered if anyone tried to pull her up on it. But perhaps that is just me, and my anxieties about being potentially caught out in a lie massively overwhelm any potential benefits of lying in the first place.

I did enjoy seeing Kelly learn to love herself and be less risk averse as she spent time with her robot boyfriend. It becomes an exercise in her finding self-confidence, and Ethan – programmed to ‘love’ and support her – is the perfect protective shield between Kelly and society. He encourages her, anticipates her needs and wants, and protects her. With no real needs or wants of his own, he is able to dedicate himself to being entirely what she wants him to be, and to keeping her happy.

I’ve historically had some problems with human-robot romances. I read Chobits and found myself very uncomfortable with the way it ended; I was less uncomfortable in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet because there was an established society for AIs, rules and cultures. In this, though, there was no previous AI rule. Ethan is essentially in this a tamagotchi. Just one with… additional functionality. For me, I would have preferred to have it balanced with a real person who actually helped Kelly get outside of her head and maintain perspective.  As it was, with no outside input, and only a robot designed to do what makes her happy, some of her behaviours got better while others got worse. And when she ended up lying to the robot that she built because she was embarrassed by how out of things had got, I began to entirely lose sympathy for her.

It pulled back for a satisfying ending, but there was a long bit in the third quarter or so where I was baffled by some of her behaviour and the choices she was making. When I got to the end, I could see why there hadn’t been a second character with her through the journey, but personally I would have preferred that dynamic of two people, and the robot as an additional player. I really enjoyed the narrative tone, though, and got a lot of chuckles out of some of the lines and their delivery.

If you’re looking for a fun, fluffy book, however, and an SF romcom at that, this is an easy read and one that isn’t going to cause any upset.

Briefly:

  • A fake relationship romcom except instead of hiring someone to pretend to be her boyfriend, or blackmailing a friend, Kelly builds herself the perfect man. And then can’t bring herself to un-build him.
  • I vacillated between finding Kelly very relatable and finding her choices completely baffling. Perhaps her initial relatability was the reason I struggled to handle when she later made choices I wouldn’t have made myself.
  • There is some great humour in it, however, and several lines made me laugh out loud. Particularly some of the early scenes with Kelly’s family, which were pitch perfect.

Rating: 3/5 – I enjoyed it a lot and i’m so happy it exists, but I’m unlikely to read it again because it didn’t quite hit the notes I personally wanted it to. I think many other people will love it, and I hope they do!

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