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A Working Theory of Love

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Settled back into the San Francisco singles scene following the implosion of his young marriage just months after the honeymoon, Neill Bassett is going through the motions. His carefully modulated routine, however, is soon disrupted in ways he can’t dismiss with his usual nonchalance.

When Neill’s father committed suicide ten years ago, he left behind thousands of pages of secret journals, journals that are stunning in their detail, and, it must be said, their complete banality. But their spectacularly quotidian details, were exactly what artificial intelligence company Amiante Systems was looking for, and Neill was able to parlay them into a job, despite a useless degree in business marketing and absolutely no experience in computer science. He has spent the last two years inputting the diaries into what everyone hopes will become the world’s first sentient computer. Essentially, he has been giving it language—using his father’s words. Alarming to Neill—if not to the other employees of Amiante—the experiment seems to be working. The computer actually appears to be gaining awareness and, most disconcerting of all, has started asking questions about Neill’s childhood.

Amid this psychological turmoil, Neill meets Rachel. She was meant to be a one-night stand, but Neill is unexpectedly taken with her and the possibilities she holds. At the same time, he remains preoccupied by unresolved feelings for his ex-wife, who has a talent for appearing at the most unlikely and unfortunate times. When Neill discovers a missing year in the diaries—a year that must hold some secret to his parents’ marriage and perhaps even his father’s suicide—everything Neill thought he knew about his past comes into question, and every move forward feels impossible to make.

With a lightness of touch that belies pitch-perfect emotional control, Scott Hutchins takes us on an odyssey of love, grief, and reconciliation that shows us how, once we let go of the idea that we’re trapped by our own sad histories—our childhoods, our bad decisions, our miscommunications with those we love—we have the chance to truly be free. A Working Theory of Love marks the electrifying debut of a prodigious new talent.

328 pages, Hardcover

First published October 2, 2012

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About the author

Scott Hutchins

6 books78 followers
Scott Hutchins is a former Truman Capote fellow in the Wallace Stegner Program at Stanford University, where he currently teaches. His work has appeared in Story Quarterly, Five Chapters, The Owls, The Rumpus, The New York Times, San Francisco Magazine and Esquire. It has also been--strangely--set to music. He's the recipient of two Hopwood awards and the Andrea Beauchamp prize in short fiction. In 2006 and 2010, He was an artist-in-residence at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. His first novel A Working Theory of Love is forthcoming from The Penguin Press.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 434 reviews
Profile Image for Megan Hoffman.
174 reviews278 followers
July 20, 2016
I picked this book up on a discount rack probably over a year ago primarily because I liked the cover. It then sat on my shelf as I chose books around it to read, always thinking that maybe I would get to it next but never actually doing then. Then one day I went to choose a book and thought, 'hey, why not?'

...and I am SO glad I did.

This book is the story of a man living in San Francisco working for a company that is striving to create the first intelligent computer. He's not an engineer and doesn't even consider himself worthy of the "nerd" title, but he finds himself on the team because the program is based upon the personality of his deceased father. As he uncovers more and more about his own past through this work, he is forced to face whether he's living a life currently that is best for him.

Now, I do live in San Francisco so was able to picture the setting and places pretty well but I don't think not being familiar with the city would take away from the books readability. I would say though that if you're easily offended by slight sexual content, this one might not be for you. But if you enjoy stories that aim to answer deep philosophical questions in a fun and endearing way, I highly recommend that you pick it up rather than letting it sit around on a shelf.

What did I think?: I liked this book more than I even expected to and found myself thinking more deeply because of it. It's not heavy in a philosophical sense, but it will get you thinking and feeling for the characters and what they're experiencing.

Who should read it?: If you live or love San Francisco, the setting is so well done that it in itself is worth looking at. But really, I think this is one of those books that's perfect for your vacation or lazy day - not too deep but slightly above a cheesy beach read.

Profile Image for Benjamin Chandler.
Author 17 books19 followers
October 10, 2012
The New Yorker had cited this novel in a short list of notable books released this month. I liked the sound of the plot, and liked even more the praise it was given by the reviewers. I downloaded the first couple pages and was intrigued. The writing style was snappy, detailed, and hinted at bigger things.

In short, the novel's plot follows a young man who is working on an artificial intelligence program based on his deceased father's copious journals. (So, in a sense, the AI program has his father's memories.) Along the way, he tries to manage his mixed feelings for different women in his life, including his ex-wife, a programmer from a rival company, and a spirited woman 15 years his junior. The depths of romance are plunged, secrets are revealed, and so on and so forth.

It was hard for me to read this book and not think of Richard Powers' Galatea 2.2, which I had read about a dozen years ago. That book also features a man struggling with his past while working with an artificial intelligence. I greatly liked that book, but remember only snippets of it now. At the time, I found it very well written, intelligent, and thought-provoking. (Caveat: I was in a certain place in my life twelve years ago, and many of the emotional beats of the story resonated with what I was going through at the time.)

However, I felt no such connection with or admiration for A Working Theory of Love. In fact, those first pages I read to test the waters were among the best in the book. What followed turned out to be preachy and unlikable.

I found the main character in Working Theory to be pretty stupid, petty, and unlikeable. He is emotionally stunted and treats others badly. His only desire is to connect with someone—yet making a connection is also his greatest fear. The premise of that personality flaw isn't so bad, and might even be interesting, but he ends up moving from woman to woman throughout the book, hurting their feelings and ultimately himself. He constantly struggles with his feelings regarding his dead father, even to the point where he wonders if he ever loved his dad. (His relationship with his remaining family members is thin at best.) After a while, all of his inability/unwillingness to make a lasting connection with people—while claiming to want nothing more—got extremely tiresome. I have no problems with flawed characters, but Hutchins seemed to write this guy with the assumption that we'd root for him whether we liked him or not.

Working Theory is also dripping with California-ness. That west coast yearning-for-spirituality-yet-rejecting-anything-that-has-come-before saturates the book. The book features sex cults, luddite-like terrorists, and angst-ridden agnosticism, but with the "Hey, man, it's all good. Come sit in our drum circle!" friendliness that tends to turn me off. Everything tries to create meaning and substance, but just rings hollow, which brings me to my final and biggest grievance against this book...

It was too easy to read. I don't mean that I made quick work of it (although I did), but that it never gave me anything to ruminate. Everything was clearly explained to the point where it wasn't fun. Every moment of symbolism was decoded. Every parallel between subplots pointed out. Every emotion, every heartbeat, every action was punctuated by line after line of explanation. Characters stood and gave sermons on the meaning of life and the narrator connected every dot for the reader. The novel gave me absolutely nothing to digest. I finished the book feeling like I had eaten a lot of cheap, dry cake with too much frosting.

Maybe if I'd read this book twelve years ago, I would have felt differently about it. I don't know. Maybe I need to reread Galatea 2.2 and see if it's still as good as I remember it, or if my experiences then built emotional lenses, and I'd find it no longer is as impressive as it once was. However, though I may reread Galatea 2.2, I will never reread A Working Theory of Love.
Profile Image for Rose.
395 reviews30 followers
November 11, 2012
Narrative drive is a mysterious thing. Fiction with narrative drive is supposed to be all about cliff-hanger plots that reveal, in a step-by-step fashion, the set-up for a gristly murder, saving the crucial piece of information -- the identity of the killer -- for the final page. The function of this kind of storytelling is supposed to be merely to provide a few hours of vacuous escape. The rest of us are supposed to be reading primarily to enjoy the resplendent sentence structure of the literary novel. But could it be that narrative drive is simply the result of good technique -- a combination of descriptive detail and artfully deployed foreshadowing which, somehow, manages to incite the reader's curiosity about the life of a fictional human? And does that then make fiction, regardless of how "good" it is, nothing but skillfully rendered gossip? In A Working Theory of Love, Scott Hutchins, who teaches fiction writing at Stanford, invites us into the relatively bland existence of postmodern San Francisco man. Our hero, Neill Bassett, works for a technology company that is doing something kind of freaky with AI involving his late father's journals, and this allows Neill to both re-examine and, in a strange way, relive, his relationship with this parent. The AI aspect of the book is definitely there to creep us out just a bit, and it shows off Mr. Hutchins's smartness to good effect. But he's a long way from being overly verklempt about the whole thing, nor is he that messed up about his ex-wife, laced with a healthy dose of bitterness though that relationship is. And the new girl in his life -- younger and sporting some strange hobbies -- while a bit of a wounded bird seems pretty regular overall. While Mr. Bassett makes his way through these not very hair-raising complexities, he drinks a lot of coffee, shops for food and cooks, imbibes cocktails, hikes, works, dates, worries a little, runs away and then decides to stick around, and, I'm pretty sure, learns something about love. Not entirely sure what that is. And that's okay. Because I read this thing in, like, two days, and every time I went to put it down, I knew that as soon as I had a minute, I'd pick it up again. And that is all I ask of any novel.
Profile Image for Karyn.
82 reviews
August 27, 2012
I tried, oh Lord did I try. I got to page 111, but then the self-absorption and passivity of the narrator became too much for me. At times the narrative drew me in, when Neill was talking about the past: his relationship with his father, his honeymoon, but Neill in the present destroyed it.

Sometimes I think it's me. This tends to happen when I read books that I'm told are deep and intimate portraits of humanity. I just want to smack the main character over the head. And, wow, did I want to smack Neill. His inability to see beyond his own nose, his decision to follow someone's advise and lie to hook up with a chick at a hostel, his stunningly ability not to see what his ex had needed. I'm sure over the course of the novel he learns a lesson about these things, but I just don't care enough to follow him through that journey.
Profile Image for Victoria.
2,512 reviews53 followers
October 29, 2012
I took a gamble on this book, and unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy the book very much at all. Its premise certainly sounded promising - a thirty-something divorced man joined a computer company, with the extensive journals of his deceased father in hand, in their goal in creating the first A.I. system to pass the Turing test. The manner of Neill’s father’s death further complicated matters for Neill and drove most of the plot along as Neill reconciled himself with the actions of his father. But this first time author achieved perhaps too much success in isolating Neill from the world and the people around him. As the reader, I felt alienated by Neill and very few of his relationships seemed credible. His relationship with the young Rachel, in particular, felt more like a fantasy than a reality. But none of the female characters were given much dimension, or motivation - perhaps reflecting Neill’s own lack of understanding. Perhaps a male reader would be less troubled by the mysterious attraction these different women felt for Neill. I certainly did not understand what made him so attractive to any of them! Honestly, the artificial Dr. Bassett came to life more than any other character in the book.

Perhaps the book’s highest point was its San Francisco setting. Hutchins rendered the city and its surrounding areas well, and the locale itself played a large (and perhaps its most convincing) role in the novel. The cult aspect could have been explored further, but it felt like the setting was carefully and realistically constructed. The “emergency” trip to Arkansas felt like the insertion of forced drama - and the book would have been better off without that section entirely! Really, the book’s biggest faults laid with its characters. I never connected with any of them, and perhaps strangest of all was that for a book with a title mentioning love, the book lacked the heart and humour that I expected.
Profile Image for Lemar.
665 reviews53 followers
August 20, 2019
Excellent debut novel. The best part is relationship between father and son which is rendered in a completely unique way, rich with possibilities, which are beautifully rendered.
Neill describes himself as, “one of those guys, so good and polite that I bring nothing but misery to the world.” There is bite, rage and longing under our main character’s placid exterior, actually a few layers deep into his interior. Will he persist in his self discovery? He is a man of our time, determined, at times, to experience the world in an authentic way, deciding whether to fight through layers of tech, comfort and American male reserve to a working theory of love.
Profile Image for Cheryl McNeil.
41 reviews7 followers
August 21, 2012
What an original story! It’s a romance, but my techie-scifi husband is even saying it’s on his list to read. It should definitely appeal to men and women equally. The main character is a man in his thirties, floundering in many ways after his divorce and his father’s suicide. He’s got daddy issues (join the club!), and he ends up working on them not with a shrink, but with the incarnation of his dead father in an artificially intelligent computer that has all his dad’s diaries inputted. It’s a weird premise. But for all those who think that’s too weird and not in their realm of interest, don’t worry. It never gets really techie. Because the technology isn’t the point. The philosophy of what it means to be alive is. How we figure out what’s wrong with us, and what we do about it. How we manage to connect with other people in spite of ourselves. This is really a wonderful book that should appeal to a wide audience. Highly recommended. Advance readers copy provided by BEA. http://libraryshelfblog.wordpress.com...
288 reviews
November 17, 2012
I found this to be a unique reading experience. I vascillated between thinking, "this is fantastic" to "I don't know if I can finish this book." What I found is that I really liked certain themes and threads, and really disliked others. I loved the conversations between Neill and the computer, and loved the family themes, particularly the main theme about coming to terms with the suicide of a loved one. I thought the relationship between Neill and his mother was the most interesting aspect of the book, and should have been further developed. I found Neill's romantic relationships and the sexual themes to be incredibly boring, and couldn't keep track of some of the characters like Raj, Trevor, Toler, and Livorno. The character of Rachel made no sense to me, and felt very contrived. At times I found myself confused by some of the basic plot developments -- as if I had missed something -- but when I looked back it seemed like the writer had just forgotten key bits of information. But I also agree with the other reviewers who noted that too much of Neill's inner world was explained, without allowing the reader the active experience of decoding the book's meaning and messages.
Profile Image for Bennett Gavrish.
Author 26 books137 followers
December 12, 2012
Grade: A-

L/C Ratio: 80/20
(This means I estimate the author devoted 80% of his effort to creating a literary work of art and 20% of his effort to creating a commercial bestseller.)

Thematic Breakdown:
35% - Love
25% - Artificial intelligence
20% - Family
10% - San Francisco
10% - Divorce

The emphasis on computer science in the plot of Scott Hutchins's debut novel will probably scare some readers away, afraid that the book is geeky sci-fi masquerading as literary fiction. And that's a shame, because A Working Theory of Love is much more than just a story about technology.

Hutchins is wise to make his narrator, Neill, only tangentially connected to the world of Silicon Valley rather than presenting him as a full-blown nerd. The dilemmas that Neill must face involving work, romance, and family combine to form a fascinating character study, and Hutchins does an impeccable job of diving into Neill's mind without losing sight of the plot.

The only slip-up in A Working Theory of Love is the underdevelopment of the characters who are supposed to be Neill's enemies, but that hardly holds back this dazzling debut. With the theme of artificial intelligence serving as a compelling backbone for the narrative, Hutchins tells a memorable tale of love and loss – while also creating perhaps the most bizarre and inventive father-son dynamic in modern literature.

Noteworthy Quote:

"It took you twenty-one years to get this way. It’ll probably take another twenty-one years to not get this way.”
Profile Image for Kate.
356 reviews9 followers
August 13, 2012
I liked this book, but I didn't love it.

I think that has a lot to do with the main character's apathy. That being said, I did love the evolving computer, the way Neill perceived his co-workers, and how those perceptions changed, and the flashbacks to his childhood.

I wasn't as crazy about his jumbled love life, or the tangents he used to go on with his ex-wife.

It seems that this novel attempted to connect present love life with former family life, and while all the of the pieces were there, the connections were a little weaker than they could have been.

The writing was neither revolutionary nor dull. It did seem to take backseat to the story, making it fast-paced and incredibly readable.

By far, though, the strongest part of this book is the actual working theory of love that is developed in the story. This is the take away point that will give readers more to think about than the day-to-day of Neill, and it will stick around longer as well.

Finally, will this book sell? It all depends on the kind of publicity it receives closer to the pub date, but it could easily hang on to the bestseller shelf for a few weeks, if not longer. It won't leave readers overwhelmed or shell-shocked, but it will satisfy. Even if it doesn’t make the bestsellers, it could still thrive as a good pick for book clubs, as the concepts are varied and exotic (A.I., cults, materialism, the theory of love; to name a few). A Working Theory of Love is an interesting first push from a new author. Hopefully it will give Hutchins the success and confidence he needs to put out a longer, more complexly satisfying second attempt.
Profile Image for Ari.
331 reviews72 followers
February 18, 2015
This is one of those books that spent its entirety teetering on the edge of something brilliant and the edge of something awful, while staying firmly rooted in the purgatory of the mundane. The concept of the artificial intelligence and the psychological toll of talking to your deceased father-but-not colored my reading experience like brilliantly flavored droplets, which is why I kept reading. There was some humor, mostly within that "lovable blundering lost soul with just enough elements of asshole-ish-ness to be realistic" range. It wasn't a bad book and the concept, as I said, was intriguing, but it just never took off for me.
Profile Image for Larry H.
2,484 reviews29.4k followers
October 24, 2012
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.
Profile Image for Nicole.
937 reviews29 followers
October 11, 2015
Neill ist Wissenschaftler und hat den Selbstmord seines Vaters, der jahrelang Tagebuch geführt hat, nie begriffen. Dann füttert er einen speziell programmierten Computer mit den Tagebuchinhalten seines Vaters und beginnt mit ihm zu chatten. Sein Ziel ist es einen Computer zu entwickeln, der auf Basis eines Chats für menschlich gehalten werden könnte.  Dabei erfährt er sehr viel über seinen Vater, der Ehe seiner Eltern und sich selbst, aber auch darüber, wie er mit seiner neuen Beziehung umgehen sollte.

Das Buch gibt sehr viele Anstöße zum Philosophieren, was mir grundsätzlich gut gefällt. 
Der Computer weiß auch nicht, dass er Selbstmord begangen hat, was die Chats besonders interessant zu lesen macht.  
Insgesamt ist die Geschichte ein interessanter Ansatz zum Thema "Künstliche Intelligenz" und wie sie sich auf uns auswirken kann.
Profile Image for Kyle.
180 reviews3 followers
March 14, 2013
This book nearly got a three star review, but it fell just short.....A little better than ok, but not by much, which sucks because I really wanted it to be more than it was.

Let me start with positives. I liked the narrator. The setting was San Francisco, and I believe that the author NAILED the perspective of a person coming from the South to live in an urban enviornment. The things that Neill says throughout that mention his childhood and Arkansas let me know that the author had to be raised in the South as well. It was too spot-on for that not to be the case. So anyway, I enjoyed reading those references being a southerner myself. The references were small, but they were there.....the mentioning and explanation of "backdoors" was my favorite. Gotta love Southern vernacular.

My other favorite part to the book was the description of Neill's single life and the components, routines, etc. that go into that life. Being single myself, I related a lot to his character. I saw myself in him, which I don't know is a good thing or not. Regardless, it was neat to read a point of view that mirrored closely to my own.

What I didn't find that fascinating was the evolution of the romance between Rachel and Neill. Their relationship was dull, I didn't feel that there was any real cultivation of it. Things confused me, they became a couple very quickly at then end, and overall, I just didn't feel that it was written very well.

I also despised Jenn and how Jenn came to relate to the story. I didn't like that Neill found her online, but she oh so suddenly became a part of his bigger professional storyline. That shit was a stretch, and one that this reader didn't appreciate.

The theory of love is a deep topic, one that should allow deep reflection. You don't get that reflection from "A Working Theory of Love". I'm disappointed. I guess I figured before reading that if an author was going to tackle that topic, he might have something within the story that really causes the reader to have a moment.
Profile Image for Brina.
1,951 reviews118 followers
August 3, 2014
Bei "Eine vorläufige Theorie der Liebe" habe ich zunächst eine schöne, humorvolle Geschichte erwartet. Meine Erwartungen wurden dabei nicht wirklich erfüllt, allerdings habe ich dafür eine recht melancholische und nachdenklich stimmende Geschichte erhalten, mit der ich ebenfalls gut leben konnte. Die Ereignisse rund um das Computerprogramm, Neill, Rachel und den anderen Figuren hat mir ganz gut gefallen, allerdings wurde hier auch stellenweise zu sehr der Fokus auf Neills Midlife-Crisis gelegt, sodass die anderen Figuren dabei ein wenig untergegangen sind. Dennoch fand ich die meisten Charaktere oftmals vielseitig und sympathisch.

Die Schwäche liegt hier eindeutig beim Schreibstil. Dieser liest sich zwar zum Großteil relativ flüssig, jedoch gab es auch einige Kapitel, die sich ewig in die Länge gezogen haben. Bei einigen Stellen, die gar nicht mal wirklich wichtig waren, wurde zu ausschweifend erklärt, sodass ich hier doch das ein oder andere Mal ein wenig gelangweilt war. Auch hat es mir stellenweise an Humor gefehlt, den ich im Vorfeld erwartet, aber dann doch nicht bekommen habe. Aber trotzdem: Figuren wurden gut ausgearbeitet und auch die Dialoge haben mir zu großen Teilen wirklich gefallen.

Ansonsten ist "Eine vorläufige Theorie der Liebe" eine Geschichte, die mich zu großen Teilen unterhalten und berühren konnte. Manches verlief zwar sehr klischeehaft und manchmal konnte mich auch der Schreibstil alles andere als unterhalten, aber dennoch hatte die Geschichte das gewisse Etwas, um immer wieder am Ball zu bleiben. Von daher gibt es von mir eine klare Leseempfehlung.
1,229 reviews33 followers
August 25, 2012
This book grabbed me right away. I liked Neill Bassett's character. He's 36 years old, divorced, lives in San Francisco...you'd think he's old enough to figure out his life by now, except that he doesn't. He starts working for a tech company that wants to create an artificial intelligence that is able to reason and interact as if it's human. The program is using Neill's dead father's massive journals as the framework for its intelligence. As Neill continues testing the program, he gets to know more and more about his father. The book does have a theory about love embedded in the book, actually two theories-- one cynical and one simplistic. I was expecting something more profound, but in the end, I realized love is kind of hard to explain so treating it casually was probably a good idea. I wouldn't say this is a love story, but Neill does somehow end up with one girl who in my opinion, doesn't seem right for him. Then again, that is the point of love--the person one chooses may or may not appeal to everyone just as long as they appeal to the other person. There's some New Age stuff that turned me off at first and then there's a pseudo twist at the end that seems to tie the story, but still comes off as vague. The author did a brilliant job in showing how two people who used to be in love can unravel so quickly (as in the case of Neill and his ex-wife Erin). Worthy read for those who want something to ponder about life and love.
Review copy provided by Penguin Debut Author program.
4 reviews
July 1, 2012
I won this book in Goodreads First Reads Program, but that in itself in now way prejudices my opinion of it.

In this book I suspected something quite... well I suppose the best word that comes to mind is dry. However, I was pleasantly surprised. "A Working Theory of Love" blends Romance (with a capital r), mid-life crisis and just a hint of sci-fi. Truly an unexpected combination and an even better follow through. I would recommend this for light readers, and also those looking for something deeper than your average romance novel.

The main character, Neill, is one of those people who drifts through life. His unsuccessful venture into married life has led to a bachelor approach. Following the advice of one bachelor he stays in a youth hotel in which unsurprisingly he hooks up with a youth. But what starts off as a fling changes into a much deeper relationship. In the background of this is his job, teaching a computer that mimics his deceased father to pass the Turing test. In teaching the computer, he learns more about himself and the past, so that he can move on in his life of listlessness.

It is an excellent novel, both in writing and in content. An entertaining light read, but also heavily philosophical depending on your aspect. Either way, it's a hard book to put down and thoroughly engaging from beginning to end.
Profile Image for Gretchen.
477 reviews22 followers
December 31, 2012
I don't read a lot of fiction set in the Bay Area. So I was struck by the descriptions of the Mission and the people hanging out at Dolores Park. Or the feeling of driving through Menlo Park. Or the way the light feels at the end of the day. Clearly Scott Hutchins benefitted from his time at Stanford. Hutchins' ability to convey the emotions and atmosphere of a place ground this story very specifically in this time and place. As a result, they give the protagonist of this novel a framework, as he searches for a way to connect..to click...as he reels from his father's suicide and the failure of his marriage.

As someone who has lived and worked in the Bay Area for the last 20 years, the tech side of the story worked for me. These are the sorts of questions being asked all the time. How do you make computers sentient? Where do you draw the line between life and work? Can you expect computers to take a larger part of your life...could they fulfill your desires?

I would have liked to have a stronger protagonist, and ideally, some stronger female characters - they seemed to be placed to cause Neill to respond to them. I wonder how much the novel was workshopped... it seemed that it may have lost some of its edge in places.

Overall, a strong debut. Great ideas, and fantastic atmosphere. I will look forward to seeing more from this author.
Profile Image for Malena Watrous.
Author 3 books104 followers
September 14, 2012
I loved so many things about this book, from the deft and seemingly effortless characterization (yes, it felt like a character) of my beloved home city, SF, to the clever but also extremely moving "relationship" between the narrator and his father as embodied by the computer program that has digested his journals. The author is a friend, and I often find it distracting to read friends' books, because I can't stop thinking about that person rather than getting immersed in the story, but this character and voice became so real to me that I'd forget that it was all Scott's creation. I stayed up late several nights in a row, unable to put it down.
Profile Image for kate.
664 reviews
December 31, 2012
I have no idea, people. I think I liked it but I do not know why. I skimmed some parts because it got a bit dull. I went along for the ride but wish we had taken a different route.

My favorite parts, the thing that brought me back after I set the book down for days, were the conversations with the Doctor/computer.
Profile Image for Cheri.
1,740 reviews2,267 followers
January 16, 2013
I alternated between being so bored with certain segments it was hard to stay awake and being interested in other segments - mainly the dialogue / relationship between Neill, Jr. and Dr. Bassett (the former Neill, Sr.) Outside of that, it was okay, but I wasn't overly impressed.
Profile Image for Abhinav.
272 reviews249 followers
September 24, 2015
Scott Hutchins' debut novel is a deep exploration of a complicated father-son relationship within the confines of a sci-fi tale. Shades of a kind of writing that is reminiscent of good ol' Nick Hornby, though Hutchins doesn't particularly try to make things funny.

3 and a half stars. Worth a read.
Profile Image for Claudia.
91 reviews22 followers
March 2, 2016
3,5/5 - Dieses Buch ist philosophischer als zunächst angenommen, was mir aber sehr gut gefällt. Leider sind für mich die Figuren etwas flach geworden (bzw. deren Geschichten) und an einigen Stellen hat sich das Ganze dann doch zu sehr gezogen.
Profile Image for Orland Outland.
Author 14 books9 followers
December 10, 2012
Copy/paste from my blog, http://orlandoutland.wordpress.com, where I'm chronicling the development of my own book about AI, "Less Than a Person and More than a Dog."

So I finished Scott Hutchins’ “A Working Theory of Love,” the book that had me panicked into thinking that it was too late for “Less Than” and Alex. And I’m relieved, as I no longer feel beat to the punch. Its AI and more importantly that AI’s place in the world, is a prequel of sorts to Alex, I’d say, but it’s definitely not the same book, in a number of ways.

First off, it’s a very “sentency” book, i.e. writing programmy in a lot of ways – no surprise as the author teaches writing at Stanford. I’ve written mockingly before about the cliché of the “marriage under a microscope” story, and Hutchins has that in spades here. There’s some very heavy-handed stuff, such as what feels like an implanted short story about the main character’s honeymoon as they realize that they probably shouldn't have gotten married (in The Unsaid of course because if people could communicate about anything at all there’d be no story though you have to wonder if it’s all so unsayable how the hell did they get together in the first place). Driving around Europe on the strict itinerary the wife has set, they get off course, GET IT THEY’RE OFF COURSE GET IT?, and the main character says,

“We should backtrack,” I said. “It’s only a few kilometers.”

“Kilometers,” she said with disgust, as if it was the name of my mistress.


As a number of Goodreads reviewers noted, the character isn't very sympathetic. He mopes pretty much through the whole book, and his feeling sorry for himself doesn't end until after the mandatory tiny epiphany. He’s got money, looks (since he scores with a number of attractive ladies he’s got to be no slouch), but no discernible friends and is pretty much at sea when he’s laid off for a few days. (You know you’re clinically depressed when you have plenty of money and get a week off work and don’t know what to do with yourself.) I know Caroline is a depressed individual but at least she has a sense of humor about it, and her friendlessness is explained as a crippling self-esteem/social phobia issue whereas Neill, the main character, never really has a compelling reason for his mopiness other than having had a distant father, join the club buddy, so his self-pity gets on your nerves fairly quickly.

One of the things I did like, being able to relate from personal experience, are the things he says about San Francisco. They echo what Anne Rice said she felt after the death of her daughter – that to be unhappy in the happiest place on earth was to be treated like a criminal, that in short how dare you bring us down. Neill watches “beautiful couples pass by on their golden errands – buying peaches, buying panettones – hands held, arms swinging in metronymic synch, as if keeping time to some unheard music,” a whole city full of Alex Katz paintings, every day a great day isn't it. Isn't it?

I had to laugh at this passage about apartment hunting:

It was the dot-com boom, and it was nearly impossible to find a place to live. If you were looking to share an apartment you had to impress the longtime housemate by being “interesting.” (If they worked for a nonprofit, this meant also working for a nonprofit. Otherwise, interesting meant something like swallowing fire.) If you were looking for your own place, you competed against kids your age arriving with a check for the year’s rent. Or in one case, the cash.

Now, the AI. “Dr. Bassett” is the father of Neill, the main character, or more to the point he’s a database of Dr. Bassett’s thousands of pages of very boring journals, whose very boringness is taken by the AI researcher who chooses them as the perfect fit for a chatbot who could win the Turing Test. What after all is more human than being boring? Hutchins does a good job with the AI, starting his out with the usual inability to carry a conversation, and of course as poetic license we let ourselves believe that Dr. Bassett is “achieving awareness,” based on the amount of conversation he’s having with his son. The holes in his memory become more bothersome for him, especially a year missing from his journals. As Neill notes near the end, “Dr. Bassett is really me – he’s my father and me together,” because it’s the input from Neill that has “finished” the doctor’s personality.

The Turing Test scenes are good as well. Hutchins gives good examples of where Dr. Bassett would fail with one judge and succeed with another. And Hutchins only hints at what is the meat of my story – he terminates the novel after the Turing Test, with portents as to what is to become of us all when AIs are implanted into sexbots and we can stop worrying about connecting with humans. The “villain” as much as there is one is an entrepreneur who intends to make sexbots with personality, or at least enough personality that people can get one with a clean conscience about “having made a connection” before they do the nasty. I looked in the acknowledgements pages (another writer with nine trillion people to thank! Surely this lonely mopey main character must be pure fiction when you the author have forty six people to thank for their support!) to see if “Love and Sex with Robots” was part of his reading, but Rosalind Picard’s “Affective Computing” was the only book on his list. I can’t imagine he only read one book about this stuff, considering how many I’ve plowed through to get to this point.

So I feel better – the story I’m telling is not told yet. All the same, the time is drawing near when my little idea will be dust in the wind behind someone else’s achievement if I don’t hurry up and finish. At least self-publishing shaves a year or more off the time from manufacture to delivery, but I do need to get cracking.
Profile Image for Theo.
108 reviews2 followers
December 8, 2017
i bought this book for a dollar at the dollar store, one of many that i discovered in an aisle so disorganized i could barely find the tip of my nose. honestly, I'm not mad that i spent the dollar. it took a while for me to get into it, but once i did, i looked forward to reading it. it surprised me that i didn't hate the main character. even more so that i related to his struggle with his father and with his inability to connect to people in any given relationship. i usually despise straight male characters in stories like this.
Profile Image for Greg Zimmerman.
803 reviews170 followers
October 18, 2013
(Review first appeared at: http://www.thenewdorkreviewofbooks.co...)

I picked up Scott Hutchins' debut novel, A Working Theory of Love, because it sounded like a good facsimile of a Jonathan Tropper novel. And it is, to some degree, but it's more a like a Tropper on downers.

The novel's about mid-30s dude named Neill Bassett, recently divorced and living in San Francisco, and working for a start-up company attempting to bring consciousness to a computer. Neill's a self-deprecating, semi-depressed dude, who can't seem figure out where life will lead next.

In the opening pages of the novel, we see a desperate Neill pretending to be a tourist at a youth hostel so that he can pick up younger women who are visiting San Francisco and need a "tour guide" — it's a move a friend told him about, but which he's not sure he's fully committed to. But it works! He meets cute, mysterious 20-year-old Rachel who is pretending to be from Tel Aviv, but who is actually from Jersey, having just moved to SF to get a new start on life. Once Rachel and Neill come clean about their respective ruses, they start hanging out and form an unlikely, but tenuous bond.

But Neill, in general, seems to be annoyed by people, especially hipsters, ("The tight clothes, the tiny hats — their major struggle as a generation seems to be reducing drag. As if success in life requires being ever ready to slip through a narrow opening."), and he's somewhat confounded by the absurdity of his job. That's especially true when you consider the computer he works with — built by a famous artificial intelligence scientist and an Indonesian programmer — is based on 5,000 pages of journal written by Neill's dead father (who committed suicide when Neill was in college).

Neill spends his days talking via instant messenger to essentially what is a computerized reanimation of his dead father. The goal for the computer — named Dr. Bassett (Neill's father was a physician) is to pass the Turing test — that is, fooling human judges at least 30 percent of the time that it is a real person. What will it take to do that? Will the computer need to be programmed with real human vices? Or, conversely, with real human love? What, indeed, is the working theory of love that will allow the computer to learn real human connection? And, similarly, what is the working theory of love that will allow the divorced Neill, who thought he'd found his soulmate, to form real human connections in his own life?

This is one of those novels that's probably a much better book than I'm willing to give it credit for. For one thing, it seemed odd that we don't find out until near the end why Neill's father killed himself, and we never really see Neill wondering at all about it. For another, while the novel is really funny at times (most often when Hutchins is ripping on silly hipsters), it felt like Hutchins tossed too many balls in the air for this to work completely. For me, whatever Hutchins intends the real theory of love to be got a bit lost in theories on artificial intelligence, set-piece love letters to San Francisco (which, actually, were fairly cool — San Francisco is one of my favorite cities), Neill's strange relationship with his mother, Neill's relationships with various other women, and Neill's relationships with his coworkers.

If you liked Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, you may like this, too. The subject matter is very different, but the writing and overall feel are similar. (For the record, I wasn't a huge fan of that novel either.) But if you're looking for a Tropper-esque breezy, funny dude lit, this may not be the best solution.
Profile Image for Manoel.
30 reviews
March 19, 2015
The gravest and most unprofessional sin of A Working Theory of Love is one that every author should have in mind when writing any piece of fiction, and something that Hutchins simply ignores: we, as readers, need characters (and more specifically, protagonists) that move forward in their journeys and carry the plot on with them. No one wants to read about the life of a stone, something that remains on the same spot over time and does nothing about its shortcomings (which, for a stone, we are safe to say there are not many). Neill, the protagonist, is exactly this stone along the novel: every time he reaches the crossroads of his destiny, he demonstrates the amazing ability to turn his back to the right one. Sure, we might consider that, in real life, many people act just like him, but for a novel trying to discuss humanity in the poetic way and how people deal with life, every choice he does is just the worst for plot progression. "Rather than yes - no" (adapting a recurring phrase from the novel), he just chooses to omit himself from a conflict and whenever the reader expects the story to go in a certain direction, it never does, and while this generally shows the brilliance of a writer when building their plot, what we are left in the end is just a depressing false moralist monologue to which readers will question: "why the hell have I read all this stuff to reach this?"

What sounded promising in this novel was the concept of a artificial intelligence bot that attains sentience through conversations with Neill and his co-workers, while its database was created using Neill's father's journals, written in extreme accuracy through decades until his suicide. But we never get to see this machine shine, since this side of the story is overshadowed by the boring life of the protagonist and his relationships, which just seem artificial: an on-and-off "girlfriend" who follows a cult and who we never understand as to why Neill is atracted to her (or not, since everything surrouding them is so confusing and dull), his ex-wife who appears there and there and just brings the flashbacks of their relationship (again, strange and to which we don't comprehend its outcomes, there is something lacking in backstory, and the few we have is just useless), and even his deceased father, who now takes the shape of a computer. Neill states how he never understood him, how distant he was to both him and his mother, but what comes out of the journals and the artificial mind in the present does not help us in understanding anything. Even a revelation towards the end, despite unprecedent yet untouching, feels out of place and contributes for the novel's dullness and uninspired narrative.

What is most annoying in A Working Theory of Love is that by the conclusion, all the choices Neill has declined to make throughout the whole rest of the story are just resolved in a moment, with no reasoning behind them, turning everything into an awfully awkward situation for the reader, and all we are able to guess is that Neill has just achieved some sort of Nirvana out of nowhere, making all the 250 previous pages look disposable. If a writer wants to resort to a nonsensical deus ex machina to end their story, just throw a meteor at the protagonist's head that readers would be more pleased with it.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,049 followers
August 7, 2012
This book comes out in October, but I got to read a copy early because of the Penguin First Flights program.

I found it impossible to read this book without thinking of Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart*. It isn't exactly the same setting, but the main character and his much younger lover felt like they had been picked up and dropped into this book, with a few little tweaks. It was the most bizarre sense of déjà vu I've had as a reader. I get a little tired of middle aged male protagonists who don't know what they want out of life and fail at relationships. It is hard to find anything new in that.

But then, even though he reads like a middle-aged man, I find out that Neill isn't middle aged, but in his 30s. The way he is so jaded and releasing his 'porcelain youth,' he may as well be. Neill has a job helping to train a computer program to try to defeat the Turing test. They are using his father's journals, his father who committed suicide when he was in his late teens.

The techie talk got a bit exhausting, even for me, who enjoys books like The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood and Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World's Most Wanted Hacker. The young girl character was uninteresting and flat. Joining cults, making bad decisions... yawn. I found myself slogging through it, forcing myself to finish. I'd say I reached a point where I wanted to keep reading about 40% in.

The bits I enjoyed were about far less happy relationships - Neill conversing with his dead father now embodied inside a computer, and secretly meeting his ex-wife for coffee. The flashbacks to his failed marriage are probably the best writing in the book - the pain feels very authentic. Next time, I'd want to see more pain!

* - Gary Shteyngart wrote one of the blurbs on this book. My world just crashed in on itself:
"A brainy, bright, laughter-through-tears, can’t-stop-reading-until-it's-over kind of novel. Fatherless daughters, mother-smothered sons, appealing ex-wives, mouthy high school drop-outs—damn, this book's got something for everyone!"
I imagine Mr. Shteyngart says such things because it reminded him so much of his own work! Ha!
Profile Image for Natalie E. Ramm.
108 reviews11 followers
July 17, 2012
Neill's father, Dr. Basset, kept fastidious journals before he committed suicide. And when Amiante Systems uses these journals to create an intelligent computer, they hire Neill to humanize the computer. Daily conversations with his computer-father send Neill's life into turmoil. And when the computer starts to think rather than just relay information, Neill is faced with a bit of an existential crisis. Did he ever really love his father? Could he have prevented his suicide?

While all this craziness is happening, Neill meets Rachel. She young, lost (like him), and impressionable. She was supposed to be a one night stand, but there is something about her that keeps her on his mind, despite the occasional run-in with his ex-wife and dating another women.

In the midst of everything, Neill is creating a theory of love. What does it mean to love your father? Is it wrong not to love your father? What does it mean to love a woman? What does love feel like? Is love what makes us all sufficiently human? (for example, everyone loves someone, whether it's their mother, their friend, or their dog.)

I didn't love Neill's character. I thought he was a bit shallow and wishy-washy. He also seemed threatened by people expecting too much of him, especially women. Neill has self-understanding: he knows that he blames his father's suicide whenever he does something shitty and that it's immature to do so. But he lacks emotional understanding, which means he never really know how he feels about anything and consequently treats people like dirt.

His emotional infancy is a purposeful character flaw (common in contemporary American Literature) that disguises his callousness and makes him a pitiable character. But I'm not buying it! I think he's a total dick. Nevertheless, he goes more deeply into his theory of love at the end of the novel, which redeems him a bit (even though it sounds a bit too sentimental, a bit out-of-character).

All that said, this book could be very funny! Neill has a very dry sense of humor that had me laughing out-loud at times. A Working Theory of Love also raises some really interesting questions about artificial intelligence and the future of love and relationships.
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