In "Goodbye for Now," Seattle author Laurie Frankel spins a story of a brilliant software genius who invents an algorithm that resurrects the image, voice and words of his grieving girlfriend's dead grandmother. Complications ensue. Frankel reads Friday, Aug. 10, at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave.; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
It all starts so simply, so logically.
Sam, a brilliant and sweet- natured software genius, works for an Internet dating company — but has a miserable track record finding a girlfriend for himself. So he invents a completely new program, so successfully that it finds him the woman of his dreams, the delightful Meredith. They are perfect soul mates, and everything looks rosy until Sam is fired. His new dating program, it turns out, is too good: All those paying customers find Mr. or Ms. Right immediately, which means lots of lost customers for Sam’s company.
Seattle writer Laurie Frankel (author of “The Atlas of Love”) has a great, complicated premise here in her second novel, “Goodbye for Now” (Doubleday, 288 pp., $25.95), and that premise arises from two unrelated facts: Sam’s unexpected plethora of free time, and the sudden death of Meredith’s beloved grandmother. Meredith is so bereft at this loss that Sam starts casting about for a way to make her feel better. To console her, he invents a program that combs through the voluminous emails, texts and video chats that Meredith and her grandmother had shared, creating an algorithm that rearranges previous communications between the two of them into new ones. These astonishingly realistic emails and video chats look and sound just like the real Grandma Livvie. Now, Sam reasons, Meredith can “stay in touch” and just imagine Livvie is off in Florida for the winter, instead of … well, dead.
If you are wrinkling your nose a bit at this point, so do some of the characters in “Goodbye for Now.” Frankel anticipates the reader’s reaction to the “ick factor” of email from the dead: Meredith is initially appalled when she reads the first mail from “Livvie.” Meredith’s mother falls to her knees in shock and horror when a video chat window from “Livvie,” complete with animated projection, opens during a family visit. (Meredith recovers, however, and enthusiastically participates in subsequent video chats.)
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The science of the algorithm Sam has created, with advice from his similarly brilliant father, is described in a way that may make the reader recall the Sidney Harris cartoon in which the scientist is inscribing long formulae on a blackboard, including the term “then a miracle occurs.” That’s fine; most readers of “Goodbye for Now” will be there for the story, not for in-depth analysis of the science. And these are characters worth reading about: the two quirky, sweet- natured principals are surrounded by colorful people, including Grandma Livvie’s pal Penny, Meredith’s flamboyant and hilarious L.A. cousin, and Sam’s and Meredith’s savvy British boss.
Things heat up when Sam’s invention is quietly marketed as “RePose,” inviting amazed clients to the “Salon Styx” to commune with projections of their loved ones on computers with “monitors larger than whales.” And then the phone calls start coming: from The Seattle Times, and The New York Times, and The Times of London. And then from Believers Monthly and Christianity Today and the Mid- Atlantic Council of Mediums and Ghost Hunters LLC, most of them highly displeased.
More complications ensue, and then unimagined, poleaxing tragedy at the Pike Place Market. The book’s promotional copy hints at the nature of this tragedy; let it just be said that the events unleash enough tears to rival Seattle’s annual rainfall. And yet, “Goodbye for Now” is still hopeful and thoughtful and securely rooted in a belief in the essential goodness of which people are capable. It’s a book that will grip you, make you laugh and possibly cry, and make you think.
Melinda Bargreen: www.melindabargreen.com