Set in the near future, Sarvenaz Tash’s Virtually Yours explores virtual romance and the complications that set in when reality and fantasy collide.
Mariam Vakilian isn’t the type of person to sign up for a dating service, but now that her ex, Caleb, has thrown himself out onto the market again she knows it’s time to move on. As her NYU roommate gently points out to her, after a nasty break-up and five months of moping over the sudden end of their three year relationship, she deserves a little happiness, too – and so she signs up to the HEAVR service, a fully immersive VR matchmaking company that sends applicants off on virtual dates with their top selected matches. The service measures her responses to a quiz, then shows her her top three options. Her top match is the cute Jeremy D., but coming in third place is Caleb, whom she chooses in spite of her pride, and under an assumed identity they begin to date.
Things go swimmingly between Caleb and ‘Sienna’, and at first it’s everything Mariam thinks she wants – a reunion with the guy she can’t get over in a no-pressure context that allows others to think she’s moved on. But then she meets the new guy at her gym job, who turns out to be a student at her college – and they become fast friends. She doesn’t put two and two together immediately, but it turns out that handsome, funny and plainspoken Jeremy Diaz is the Jeremy D she rejected, the 100 percent match she ignored for Caleb.
As her first semester of college continues, Mariam disappears into the fantasy world she and Caleb have constructed, leaving her caught between her fantasy and the real world. Ultimately, Mariam has to choose between Caleb and Jeremy – between a man who would give her up if he knew who she was and a man whom she’s starting to like more and more. But there’s something much more sinister going on in the HEAVR offices, and when Mariam is encouraged to investigate, her world is turned upside-down.
Virtually Yours provides its readers with a fascinating mix of realistic romantic, familial and inter-friends-group conflicts and science fiction-based flights of fancy. At the core of the book is the very heavy question of how to maintain your own identity and individuality in the modern world, and how the heady power of virtual anonymity can warp, empower or deceive.
The minor relationships here are sometimes more interesting than the Mariam/Caleb/Jeremy triangle. There’s Mariam’s roommate and her rollercoaster relationship with her girlfriend, and Mariam’s difficulties with their mutual friend, Rose, who believes Mariam’s been consumed entirely by her love for Caleb. There’s Mariam’s relationship with her mother and her two sisters, which feels beautifully realistic and is a great example of Mariam’s attempt at trying to grow while keeping the traditions of hearth and home alive.
I liked the two tentative relationships she participates in with Jeremy and Caleb. While it’s obvious that the situation with Caleb is unhealthy and unchallenging, they’re both good people, and the good parts of their relationship make you understand why it lasted for three years. I liked her chemistry better with Jeremy, but readers will likely happily be pulled between the two gentlemen seeking her heart.
Yes, the plot has some really obvious contrivances that it tries to fix up late in the book to almost-success. And yes, it’s a little creepy that Mariam tries to court Caleb under an assumed name and identity; that’s something the book points out is wrong. But Virtually Yours does a very good job examining one girl’s attempt at trying to form a brand-new identity and a fresh life, and how college – and the virtual world – can be emotional labyrinths for us all.