The new science of facial-recognition technology meets the ancient Chinese art of face reading in this debut thriller.
New Yorker Harold Savitt, a 30-ish research editor, considers himself “a connoisseur of female beauty,” his tastes honed by a fascination with physiognomy and, in college, a system that rated women’s looks from 1 to 10. (His own features are ordinary, he believes.) So when, at his favorite watering hole, he sees Trish Donlon, a beautiful 30-something with a perfect nose, he can’t help staring. The encounter leads to further meetings with Trish and her associate Jennifer Santoramo (also in her 30s), who work in high-fashion consulting. Could physiognomy be marketable, perhaps in a smartphone app that matches face to fashion? Or could a dating app employ facial-recognition technology to connect people whose looks are compatible? The three agree to research the subject further; Harold recommends using Western ideas about beauty (such as the Greek golden ratio) as well as the ancient Chinese practice of face reading, which reveals character, health, and the future. The team hooks up with Ma-Chang-Kou, a Chinese national, to develop a software package. When Chinese intelligence, Chinatown gangsters, and the CIA get involved, things turn dangerous—as does the potential of this new technology to alter minds and even change history. In his novel, Wolfson—a dentist and medical advertising writer—brings together some intriguing and often chilling ideas. Harold gets a chance to live up to his strong chin, find his inner hero, and win the girl. But despite some action scenes, tense moments, and dire predictions, much of the book is taken up with meetings, phone calls, business travel, and explanations of project details. On the dicey question of ranking or assessing character from beauty, the story has little to offer the less gorgeous beyond “people could be counseled to like their faces,” a difficult prospect when “experts say we’re hard-wired to prefer symmetrical and proportional.” The author also glosses over the problematic history of physiognomy: It’s “dripping with racism, but don’t be put off by that.”
A captivating but uneven tale that provokes thought about the uses and misuses of face reading and technology.