Do you ever start reading a book, thinking it’s about one thing, then it turns out to be about a completely different thing? And then you’re confused. I’m of two minds about Katie Sise’s The Boyfriend App. The first is that it’s quite interesting, the second is that it’s quite problematic. Spoilers to follow…
The Boyfriend App is about Audrey McCarthy, high school senior whose father is dead, whose mother is a lunch lady, whose ex-best friend is a popular megabitch, and whose entire social standing disappears for no real reason (well, it’s high school), thus leaving her to hang out with misfits. It hits all the standard tropes: Friends torn asunder! Falls from grace (read: popularity)! Mean girls! Financial misfortune! One dead parent! Etc., etc., etc. But on the flip of that, it had a few things to make it stand out a bit, like an Indian character, and several characters who were disabled in some fashion. And of course Audrey herself is a master hacker.
The latest trend, at least in books I’ve been reading, seems to be Girls With Nerd Skills, mostly hacking. (Hacking is sexy now.) Of course, these girls all turn out to be teen spies. There are so many teen spies, y’all, so I was expecting corporate espionage left and right in this book, especially when it started being about Apple stand-in supercompany Public, who bring us things like Public Party (a social networking site that’s a Facebook stand-in, and yet Twitter still exists on its own merits) and the buyPhone. Public launches a nationwide contest, open to teens, where they are encouraged to design and build their own phone apps. Two winners will be selected, one by Public themselves as Most Innovative, and the other by Public’s public, as Most Popular. The winners get a sizable scholarship to the college of their choice, so naturally, Audrey (master hacker) wants in. Her father (also a master hacker) died in an “accident” at R.Dawkins Tech (not that R. Dawkins), leaving Audrey and her lunch lady mother emotionally and financially bereft, particularly after CEO Robert Dawkins said that the “accident” was Mr. McCarthy’s fault. (I kept thinking there were suspicious circumstances surrounding said death, but it turns out not really? It might really have just been an accident. I need to stop reading novels about teen spies.)
So after a little bit of single girl blah-blah, Audrey develops The Boyfriend App (or BFA), which lets the user take a quiz, then matches up the user results with a database of eligible dudes, and then alerts the user to when she (or he! There is some gay lacrosse team making out in there) is near her closest match, so she can approach if she so desires. Audrey lucks out that her first test subject, her fashionista/blogger cousin Lindsey, finds love almost immediately with Audrey’s fellow nerd-programmer Nigit.
But, you know, technology cannot predict human behavior. Lindsey, who actually has a large following on the internet, gets all of her hangers-on to download the app, and soon the whole school is trying it out. But people break up quickly, or get massively rejected, and suddenly the App becomes a lot less fun. Audrey quickly falls out of the public eye and when she doesn’t make the top 250 list for Most Innovative, she fears all is lost.
However, an accident with her phone leads to a revelation: it turns out Public has actually been installing something on the buyPhones that amps up the hormones of ‘susceptible’ teenagers through subtle sound waves, increasing their dopamine and oxytocin levels and leaving them ‘in love’, as it were, with buying more Public products. So Audrey replicates the program and creates a BFA 2.0, one that allows the user to press a button, and hyper-activate the target’s hormones, leading instantaneous love (read: lust). (Worth noting: in between all of this, she also illegally gathers evidence that Public is using this technology based off a study by a local scientist, her friend Nigit’s dad, and is blackmailing him to keep this information silent.) (I should also point out that while R.Dawkins Tech is not actually related to Public, the CEOs are friends or something and the former is a big seller of the latter, or something. I don’t know, it was important at the time.)
Long story short: Audrey wins the Most Popular vote, scores the scholarship (so do Nigit and Audrey’s nerdy love interest Aidan, who join forces to make an app about how to be philanthropic), and gets flown out to California to meet with the Public CEO. Who of course has been monitoring her this entire time through her phone, because he is your standard Evil CEO, and who offers to buy her silence with a college scholarship. Audrey decides she doesn’t want that, even though she’s been sitting on the hormone-phone information this whole time, and so Evil CEO threatens to destroy her family. Which is about the time he calls up Robert Dawkins, a.k.a. Audrey’s former best friend’s dad, and by the next morning, Audrey’s lost her scholarship because her former best friend has declared that the Boyfriend App was all her idea. Also, Audrey’s mom gets fired from being a lunch lady because the school principal is Robert Dawkins’s weird brother. It’s a rough day all around. But Audrey’s tech teacher, who used to go to college with Evil CEO and the CEO of rival company Infinitum, knows that Audrey didn’t steal the idea, and instead hooks her up with the Infinitum CEO to expose Public’s evildoings (or at least, release the information from the initial sound wave-hormone study). She also gets into college for free. And then she threatens Robert Dawkins with exposing everything she knows if he doesn’t make a public apology for the insensitive things he said about Mr. McCarthy’s death three years ago, and then the boy she likes makes out with her not under the influence of her hormone app. The end!
I’ll be honest, I liked this book. It was a page-turner, and I would think it was about romance, and then it’d be about espionage (sorta), and then it’d be about something else, and then something else yet again. It was definitely different and interesting. But in all of this, I have one itch that never gets scratched. The morality of Public using secret tech to take advantage of teenagers and their money is vaguely discussed, and the morality of Audrey turning this tech around and using it for her own purposes is vaguely discussed, but nowhere is the morality of taking advantage of hormone surges discussed. The target boys, once no longer under the influence of the app, seem to have blurry recollections of wanting to kiss the user without knowing why. And there’s a big scene where there’s a lot of sexual chaos going on in the cafeteria, boys being tossed about left and right as helpless pawns in the face of overwhelming teenage girl sexuality. I’m all for teenage girls exploring their sexuality, don’t get me wrong, but this is less exploration and more exploitation. These boys don’t necessarily want to kiss (or more) these girls until the app makes them want to. They essentially become mindless lust machines, which is all fine and dandy in a controlled scenario, but this is uncontrolled and frankly, kind of rape-y. (Not to mention that in this world where this app exists, even though Public removes it from all buyPhones, I fear it’s setting up a horror future down the line where the number one defense for rape becomes “the app made me do it.”) And I really feel the book ought to address in there somewhere, “Wait a minute, I wouldn’t want someone pushing a button and making me do things I don’t want to do.” Even more frustrating is that Audrey does feel exploited by the initial Public tech, and then goes ahead and builds her app anyway, without any further thought. It’s frustrating, and upsetting, and makes me want to not like a book I otherwise mostly enjoyed.