The Plus One

The Plus One

by Sarah Archer
The Plus One

The Plus One

by Sarah Archer

Paperback

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Overview

A brilliant but socially inept robotics engineer builds her own wedding date—and learns more about love than she ever expected—in this hilarious and heartwarming debut novel.

"Prepare to fall in love!" —Aimee Agresti, author of Campaign Widows

When she couldn't find Mr. Right, she built him.


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

Meet Kelly. Twenty-nine, go-getter, a brilliant robotics engineer, and perpetually single. So when her younger sister's wedding looms and her attempts to find a date become increasingly cringeworthy, Kelly does the only logical thing: she builds her own boyfriend.

Ethan is perfect: gorgeous, attentive, and smart—all topped off by a mechanical heart endlessly devoted to her. Not to mention he's good with her mother. When she's with him, Kelly discovers a more confident, spontaneous version of herself—the person she'd always dreamed she could be. But as the struggle to keep Ethan's identity secret threatens to detonate her career, Kelly knows she has to kiss her perfect man good-bye.

There's just one problem: she's falling for him.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525539179
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/02/2019
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 202,999
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Sarah Archer is a Black List Screenwriting Mini-Lab fellow who has had material produced for Comedy Central and published short stories and poetry in numerous literary magazines. After living in Los Angeles, where she worked in literary management and development on projects including House, Concussion, Roots, and Girls Trip, she currently lives in Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt

one

 

Of the three people standing onstage, only two of them were people. But that was totally normal to Kelly-one of the people people. Along with Priya, her best friend and fellow robotics engineer (the other person person), she looked out over the audience filling the brightly lit demonstration room: a field trip of fifty or so kids, squirming and grouchy under the cloud of that early January gloom. The children were freshly reinstitutionalized after two halcyon weeks of holiday break, the feral spirit of pajama days and pumpkin pie breakfasts still smoldering in their eyes. And now it was up to Kelly to win their wandering attention.

 

"I'd like you to meet Zed," she began tentatively, gesturing to the robot standing beside her. He was one of the first projects she had worked on five years ago when she landed her coveted job at Automated Human Industries, AHI, the boutique cutting-edge robotics company. Zed made a modest impression at first glance, his body a four-foot-tall construction of steel ligaments and exposed wires, his face a flat panel. "I know he looks pretty basic," she continued, trying and failing to eclipse the gleeful Pillsbury Doughboy noises issuing from four girls in the back as they took turns poking each other's stomachs. Kelly was not the most confident performer. This was a young woman who, when playing a tree in her third-grade play, had gotten stage fright-despite not having any lines-and dramatically fled the theater. Which had not been easy, seeing as her legs had been bound together in a trunk.

 

But now her voice grew as she got excited, talking about her work. "But at the point of his creation, Zed had a greater scope of motion capabilities than anything else on the market. He was our first build with our patented predictive stereo vision-"

 

A tinny ring from the front row announced that a sandy-haired boy had just won a game on his contraband phone-and threw Kelly off her flow. Robbie, one of her coworkers here at AHI, bustled over and extended a hand. "Phone," he commanded. The boy dutifully dropped his thousand-dollar smartphone into a red plastic bucket of other thousand-dollar smartphones, glass hitting metal with a thump. Robbie had jumped at the chance to play phone wrangler today, ensuring that-even though none of the company's newest technology was on display-no junior spies filmed the program for their parents, two thirds of whom probably worked at competing tech companies here in Silicon Valley. He clutched the bucket with a sort of protective satisfaction and retreated to his position on the sidelines, from which he watched the rows of children like a prison guard. Sometimes Kelly couldn't believe that she had dated him.

 

She refocused. She was determined to get through to these students. Or at least to half of them. Maybe one? Just a small one? But so many were talking to each other that they could barely hear her. The whole detailed presentation she had perfected and rehearsed was falling apart in practice. "So we started with something called stochastic mapping, which is, um-" She faltered. Her eyes darted irresistibly toward the exit. She felt another "fleeing tree" moment coming on.

 

"It's kind of easier if you see it first," Priya gently interrupted. "Who wants to see this guy in action?"

 

"Yeah!" a couple of the kids responded, sitting up. Kelly relaxed as she looked across at her friend, grateful for the intervention. Priya was better at this type of thing anyway. She could get a smile out of a statue.

 

"Shall you do the honors, madam?" she asked now.

 

"I shall, mademoiselle." Kelly clicked the remote in her hand and Zed beeped into life, his blue eyes blinking on. More of the children looked up, their attention caught. "So he can walk, of course." She pushed the mini joystick on the remote forward and Zed took a few steps, his movements more fluid than his rough form seemed to indicate.

 

"But big deal, right?" Priya asked the crowd. "You guys have been walking for years." Some of the kids giggled.

 

"But he can also walk sideways, which is pretty cool." Kelly toggled to the right on the remote, sending Zed into a side-to-side grapevine movement. "And if you add in the arms-"

 

Priya pressed a sequence of buttons on her own remote and the robot added a rhythmic arm movement to his routine. "Zed's got some major moves." The kids in the audience started clapping.

 

"Observe." Kelly swept the joystick around, and Zed whirled in a perfect, whip-fast pirouette, stopping on a dime. The sandy-haired boy let out an involuntary "Whoa!"

 

"Way better than my moves, I have to admit," Kelly said.

 

As the crowd laughed and cheered, Kelly sneaked a grin at Priya. They had officially won these kids over with the sweet smell of science. They were superheroes. Now she spoke confidently as she started to explain her process. This was her favorite part: the magic of engineering, the ability to imagine an impossible-to-solve problem, then slowly break it down, unpiecing it until it became possible.

 

"So how do you teach a robot to walk?" she asked the crowd. They were silent now, utterly rapt. "Imagine you were trying to give someone else the ability to walk for the first time. What would you need to give him?"

 

"Feet!" one child cried.

 

"Good, that's the first thing." She was actually starting to enjoy this. "What would those feet need to be able to do?"

 

But the buzz of another phone, conspicuous in the quiet, cut her off. Her eyes shot instinctively to Robbie, waiting for him to nab the culprit. But Robbie's glare was fixed squarely on her. "I'm so sorry," she muttered, fumbling her own phone out of her pocket and striking the Ignore button. She could almost physically feel everyone watching.

 

It had been her mom calling, but she could have guessed that even without looking at the screen. It was always her mom calling. She cleared her throat and tried to resume the presentation, but she had lost her train of thought. "So . . . the feet. The feet would need to be able to balance flat on the ground, right? What else?"

 

She felt a smaller rumble in her pocket as a voicemail registered, where it would sit alongside the five or six other voicemails from her mother that could be found on Kelly's phone at all times. She could already hear what this one would say: "Are you coming to family dinner this weekend?" (Yes, Kelly came to every family dinner, every two weeks like clockwork.) And "Are you bringing a date?" (No, it's a family dinner, that would be weird.) Of course, Kelly was rarely dating anyone anyway. But that wasn't the point.

 

Diane's energetic voice filled Kelly's mind so loudly that she failed to hear the kids shouting answers at her in the audience. "Sorry, what? One at a time," she said. Just moments ago she had been doing so well. She had asked her mom time and time again to not call while she was at work, but Diane just never seemed to think that Kelly's work was too important to interrupt. "How about balance?" she tried again. "Wait, I just said that. Um-"

 

Priya gave her a sympathetic glance before stepping forward again. "What did you just say? You, the boy in the awesome SpiderMan shirt? That the feet have to talk to the brain? That's right. You have to figure out how those feet are going to know what to do."

 

This time Kelly stepped back, allowing Priya to take over for her. She had lost the nerve to try again.

 

 

The drive from AHI to her parents' house that Sunday wasn't far. But passing from the sweeping, glass-bound corporate giants of North San Jose to the leafy suburban streets of Willow Glen always gave her the feeling of entering another world. Maybe she became more of the girl she was growing up there, less of the woman she was now.

 

The Suttle house was a neat ranch-style home that looked as modestly middle class as ever despite the million-dollar price tag the tech boom had hung on it. The sage-green painted exterior was nice enough, framed by solid bushes and a white bench tucked beneath a shady oak tree, but it gave way to an interior that had, in the decades-long war of attrition that was her parents' marriage, become almost entirely her mother's territory. Pillows with an indefensible number of tassels, framed flower prints jockeying for wall space, a menagerie of china and glass figurines-Diane had difficulty saying no to anything beautiful, or at least cute, or at least, well, whatever was appealing about the life-sized sculpture of a cat that glowered at them from the mantel. Family portraits from years gone by had the five Suttles smiling down, pressed and perfect, from every room. But the actual family tableaus formed in these rooms were never so idyllic. Kelly took a heavy breath as she entered the house. Something about the numerous clashing pots of potpourri, the unidentifiable cooking smells, the thick fug of repressed childhood emotions, made the air more difficult to breathe here. Kelly loved her family. But sometimes she thought it would be easier to love them if she didn't have a career that kept her so close.

 

As she emerged into the kitchen, she looked to see what her mother was cooking, but her spirits fell when she saw her ladling an ominous, gelatinous something onto plates. The older she got, the more Diane embraced a sort of culinary Russian roulette, throwing ingredients together with abandon, and the results were as likely to be toxic as inspired. Kelly could already tell that tonight would be a miss. Meanwhile, Diane talked in a stream to Clara, Kelly's twenty-five-year-old sister. Clara had a Disney princess thing going on: she wasn't a supermodel, but with wide, round eyes and a sunny smile, she was the sort of pretty that made babies smile at her automatically in checkout lines and customers at the vintage boutique where she worked want to give her the sale. Her strawberry-blond head bobbed, listening raptly, while she pushed some parbaked rolls into the oven. Beside her, her fiancé Jonathan, an overgrown but good-natured jock getting soft in the middle since college, dutifully pretended to be doing something with the butter to look busy.

 

Across the kitchen, Kelly's older brother, Gary, was half visible under his young daughters, who were summiting him like mountain goats. Kelly knew that there were three of them-triplets, in fact-but sometimes suspected he had picked up an extra one somewhere, like a leaf stuck to his hair. They made way too much sound for three humans and with the way they ran around, really, who could tell how many there were, or what was happening at all? It was like that game where you try to guess which cup the penny is under. The only possible solution is that there's a secret fourth cup. They were just reaching the age when they were developing truly distinct personalities, and Kelly was half thrilled at watching their minds blossom, half terrified at the notion that all three girls could now run and turn doorknobs.

 

"I talked to the florist about the camellias," Diane was saying as she fluttered around the kitchen, her sleeve of bracelets clinking, her dark hair motionless in its eternally perfect coif. Clara's wedding, which was eight weeks away, was the topic du jour-it was the topic du every jour, taking the place of the gossipy stories that Diane usually recounted from Blush, the bridal shop she ran. "It's vital that she understand. Gary, can you grab me the salad tongs?" Diane didn't seem to notice that Gary currently had a shoe in one hand, an upside-down toddler in the other, and an Anna from Frozen doll in his mouth. Kelly dove into the room and scooped up the toddler while Gary seamlessly plucked the tongs from their container.

 

"Ah, Kelly, you're here, finally. Hand me the lettuce spinner?"

 

Kelly struggled to perch her niece on her hip while extricating the lettuce spinner from a top shelf.

 

"So if we go with peach, that would mean-"

 

"White for the ribbons," Diane finished Clara's sentence. "And then-"

 

"Those other sashes for the bridesmaids, exactly," said Clara.

 

"The ones you showed me a while ago?" Kelly asked.

 

"Which were those again?" Clara said, busily setting the butter on the table while Kelly offered the lettuce spinner rather aimlessly, trying to catch her mom's attention. Diane seemed to have forgotten that she wanted it in the first place.

 

"Um, I don't know, they were in a catalogue?"

 

"They're all in catalogues, Kelly," Diane asserted. "Don't worry about it, we'll tell you what to wear on the day." Kelly set the lettuce spinner on the counter and pulled her niece closer to her instead, making her laugh with a funny face. She sensed that her energies were better expended there.

 

"Oh, hi, Dad," she said, just noticing her father. His stillness in the whirl of motion around him had camouflaged him into the room.

 

"Hi, Kel," he responded, not looking up from his white paper. Carl was always reading or scratching at something for his job as a civil engineer with the local water utility, but he never discussed his work with the family. For someone who worked so closely with technology, he spent an awful lot of time doing things the analogue way, and Kelly suspected this was because of Diane's strict "no devices at dinnertime" policy. If he was working on a notepad, Kelly's mom interpreted it as legitimate and let it slide.

 

Kelly's father was one of those fifty-five-year-old men with a beard and glasses who looked like he was born a fifty-five-year-old man with a beard and glasses. Trying to imagine him as a young boy, a twenty-year-old, even, was ludicrous. His crescent of close-cut, early whitened hair never seemed to grow, get cut, or fall out. His favorite armchair was so molded to the angles of his body that he didn't sit in it so much as wear it. And in the same way, he wore his marriage to Kelly's mom. When they met, he was studying biochemistry, she theater. They were married before they graduated. A boiling, opposites-attract passion carried them through the first few years. By the time it cooled, Gary was there, and so was a mortgage, and a long future that seemed pretty much planned out. Diane's silliness and flair for the dramatic didn't age well, and Carl's analytical intelligence became boring. They were married now more out of habit than love, though he never appeared to notice such things.

 

Diane thought often of such things, but was so willfully romantic that she saw only a long and happy marriage, a model for all the young brides-to-be at her shop. So she chattered on blissfully oblivious to her husband's disregard, which was probably the secret to their "success." She focused on the perfect image of her marriage in their family portraits and Carl focused on his work, neither looking at the flesh-and-blood spouse in front of their eyes.

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