When does a stranger become a lover – and vice versa? Twenty years ago, the question might have evoked a romantic comedy with a fairy tale ending. But in today’s tech-savvy climate, the question of who’s what – and to whom –  is so nuanced that it’s almost impossible to answer. And therein lies the allure of The Secret Talker, Geling Yan’s latest English language release.

Although the author and screenwriter lives and works in the United States, she writes primarily in Chinese and only a few of her 26 novels have been translated after publication. We can only hope for continued translations since Yan’s creativity and emotional awareness make her a significant contributor to Asian American fiction.

The Secret Talker opens as Qiao Hongmei browses her email after returning from dinner at a ritzy San Francisco restaurant with Glen, her older white husband. She can’t resist opening a message from an unknown address, and is amazed its sender memorized every detail about her during her dinner date, right down to the beaded sandals they presume (correctly) she’d made by hand. She clearly isn’t happy with her husband, the writer observes. Of course, she’s good at hiding it – she smiles when her husband glances her way, laughs at his corny jokes – but she wouldn’t fool anyone who really understood her. Not a man like the sender. He suffers from the same repression, he assures her.

Hongmei slams her browser closed. How dare a stranger dissect her like that? Then again, how could he be so – correct?

She can’t help writing back just once, then twice, then three times, each time hating herself for seeming like one of those women desperate for male attention. Here Yan draws us into the online vortex we all understand on some level. Perhaps we’ve surrendered to the siren call of anonymous companionship, or know a loved one who has. Perhaps, like Hongmei, we’ve prided ourselves on avoiding such cheap emotional highs. But is anyone really immune? And can we still call these relationships “cheap highs”, as our culture becomes increasingly virtual?

After all, Hongmei is a stellar PhD student married to an elite academic, and she can’t quit her online lover no matter how hard she tries. Changing her email address doesn’t shake the Secret Talker for long. “What if I’m a woman?” they write one day. Heterosexual Hongmei doesn’t care. Every email absolves her of another sin she’s hidden from her glamorous American husband: her peasant childhood in Jiangnan. The baby from her first marriage she aborted under the quota laws. Her affair while Glen was working on her visa after he returned to the U.S.

No matter what travesty Hongmei types into the faceless void, her Secret Talker – male or female – doesn’t hate her:

Only she felt that the two of them got on well, one standing, the other kneeling. Whatever roles human beings played by day, if they didn’t have a moment like this when they could reveal themselves, they’d surely be driven mad.

And therein lies the rub for all of us. We’re inundated with expectations to excel at work, school and sometimes at home. Social media invades our leisure time with status updates and doctored pictures constantly whispering, Are you good enough? Yan’s choice to contrast Hongmei’s anxiety to impress her white husband with the ideal faceless admirer makes us wonder if social progress is always healthy.

But no matter how obviously Hongmei is obsessing over something – or someone – besides her dissertation, her erudite husband can’t seem to guess his neglect might be the cause:

She needed Glen to be a big brother, to protect her unconditionally, to force her to think before acting…Right now she wanted him to pull her back, prevent her from falling into an uncertain embrace. But Glen just stood there.

Frustrated with Glen and desperate to meet the Secret Talker, Hongmei is shocked to discover she dreads the final plunge.

The past 18 months have drastically altered our own core beliefs about what constitutes a valid relationship, romantic or otherwise. Considering The Secret Talker was originally published 15 years ago, Yan’s concept of an online affair seems almost prophetic. Hongmei squinting into her desktop while her husband grades student papers a cavernous hallway away feels eerily relatable. How many of us have surfed the web in search of sympathetic eyes we couldn’t find at home, even in abnormally crowded living spaces?

The Secret Talker might have benefited from more “talking” in spite of its relatability, however. At 150 pages, the novel leaves us with several questions still unanswered. Cliffhanger endings are nothing new, and Yan demonstrates enough narrative control throughout the plot to suggest that she’s capable of landing her  breakneck ending smoothly. Still, a few surprise characters and some truncated reversals in the last couple of chapters leave us wondering if every protagonist achieves the fulfillment – or healing – they deserve.

But whether or not we gravitate toward short endings, The Secret Talker is worth reading for its cultural timeliness. In a world where we’re increasingly dependent on technology, can online relationships really replace live ones? Are we responsible for affairs if our partners are virtual? Perhaps most importantly, is there a “point of no return” in these novel relationships? Questions of fidelity are centuries old, and will continue to exist no matter how rapidly relationships evolve. Geling Yan makes sure we’ll continue asking.

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