Helen Schulman’s “Come With Me” delves into the interplay of technology and relationships with edgy, upsetting and tragic results. And yet, the story is also warm, wise and witty.
Married Silicon Valley parents Amy and Dan Messinger face somewhat typical middle-aged challenges in their personal and professional lives. Amy is a publicist for her best friend’s son, Donny, a Stanford undergrad, who has a startup (naturally). Dan, meanwhile is an unemployed journalist, but instead of looking for paying work, he opts to accompany a videographer to the Fukushima nuclear disaster site. Their teenaged son Jack spends nearly all his time online with his girlfriend, Lily, who even joins the family at mealtimes via Jack’s laptop. Their younger identical twins, whom they call “Thing One” and “Thing Two” are having trouble at school. No one in this family is content, exactly.
That’s why Donny’s fledgling website, Furrier.com, appeals to Amy. The name of the site is a callback to Donny’s grandmother, who used to say that she should have “married the furrier.” Furrier.com gives people access to “the multiverse,” a place where stored memories can be reshuffled to form alternate life scenarios. According to Donny, “If there is infinite space, there are infinite Grandmas making infinitely different decisions, and therefore all these Grandmas lived infinitely different lives. In one she shacked up with the furrier.” But the outcomes aren’t all rosy, which is clear when Amy becomes Donny’s guinea pig, leading her to relive one of her greatest regrets.
Dan’s journey with videographer Maryam gives him access to other possible outcomes, too. Maryam, a trans woman, owns her beauty and sexuality in ways Dan has never experienced and the two begin falling in love. Their bond seems less like infidelity and more like a homecoming as they traverse the disaster-torn, unpopulated Japanese landscape. Their uninterrupted stretches of one-on-one time feels especially intimate in our digitally focused world. But could such a connection survive in our modern times?
While Maryam is an interesting character, her portions tend to drag and dominate. More time could be spent on Jack and Lily, for example, whose relationship defines the book in an important way, but who become something of a sad joke, especially once Lily “attends” a funeral via Skype.
Then again, maybe Schulman does not mean it as a sad joke, so much as an authentic future choice. “Come With Me” respects the human right to feel more than one thing at one time: Sadness and amusement, love and hate, edginess and safety. It’s the kind of all-encompassing acceptance that makes the book feel both contemporary and classic.