Rosa and Klara are both female Artificial Friends (AFs), and they’re on display in a store in a busy city. From her position, Klara can see out the window to watch the rising and setting of the Sun, which she believes gives her nourishment. One day, when the sun goes away, a boy AF named Rex tells Klara she was too greedy and made the sun go dark by stealing all its nourishment. Klara believes Rex before deciding that he must be making a joke.
The beginning of the novel does not immediately specify that the narrator, Klara, is a robot, but this soon becomes clear. One of the unusual things about Klara’s narration is the way she capitalizes certain words like “Sun.” In the case of the Sun in particular, Klara capitalizes it because she’s solar powered, so the Sun acts as something like a god to her. The unusual capitalization, as well as some of the unusual word choices Klara makes help emphasize how she is an outsider, particularly when it comes to observing humanity.
The Boy AF Rex gets moved to a front alcove of the store. Soon after, a 13-year-old girl comes in with her mom and asks to buy Rex. Her mother is skeptical because Rex’s model of AF has problems absorbing sunlight, which is their source of energy. Eventually, they leave.
This section establishes that Klara and the other AFs at the store were built for a specific purpose: taking care of children. The mother’s comments about Rex foreshadow how Klara (who is from the same generation of AFs as Rex) is in danger of becoming outdated soon.
Klara and the other AFs consider it a special honor when Manager (the human woman who manages the store) places them in the window of the store. They also like it because they get more sunlight (and they become lethargic when out of the sunlight for extended periods of time). Eventually, Rosa and Klara get their chance to be in the window. Rosa hopes they’ll absorb so much sunlight that they’ll never feel lethargic again.
Klara doesn’t know much about human society, so she calls the woman who runs the store “Manager.” The capitalization of Manager emphasizes that Klara thinks the manager is important. Perhaps she thinks that “Manager” is the woman’s name or that there is only one Manager in the world. Manager places Klara and Rosa in the window because they will soon be outdated, and Manager wants to sell them while people will still buy them.
Klara has also always had another reason for wanting to be in the window: she wants to see more of the outside world. She and Rosa watch as busy people pass on the street, some of them—particularly children—pausing to look through the window at Klara and Rosa. Klara worries that some of the children she sees in the window look sad or angry, but Rosa reassures her that they must all be happy in such a nice city.
Klara’s closer position to the window symbolizes that she is slowly beginning to observe more about the outside world. Windows are a recurring motif in the story, even after Klara leaves the store. Rosa’s belief that the children are all happy suggests that she is more naïve than Klara and not as skilled at observing humans.
At the end of the day, Klara asks Manager about the sad children. Manager tells Klara that she is special to notice so much. The children Klara sees are frustrated because they dream of having an AF like Klara, but they can’t.
One of the biggest issues in the novel is privilege. As Klara will learn, some children come from more privilege than others. Klara’s understanding that some children are unhappy shows a growing awareness of how different humans come from different circumstances.
A couple days pass, and it’s now Klara and Rosa’s fourth morning in the shop window. A pale, thin girl of 14-and-a-half named Josie stops at the window and talks to Klara through the glass. Josie tells Klara that she saw her in the window yesterday while riding by in a taxi.
Klara’s ability to look at people and precisely guess their age, down to the half-year, shows how her powers of observation are in some ways even greater than what a human’s even though there are still many things about humans that Klara doesn’t understand.
Josie asks Klara questions about what it’s like in the shop and then says that Klara is the AF she’s been looking for. Josie promises to come back at some point and talk more with Klara.
Josie shows an interest in Klara beyond just treating her as a purchase, which shows that Josie herself is unique compared to some of the other children who enter the shop.
Later that afternoon, Rosa remarks to Klara how strange it is that, even though they can see the outside world from the window, Rosa hasn’t seen many fellow AFs out in the world. Klara realizes the same—in fact, she realizes that the few AFs she does see outside the window always go past quickly, as if they’re embarrassed. As Klara watches more, she wonders if the other AFs are afraid, since Klara and Rosa are newer models.
The lack of AFs suggests that in fact, AFs may just be a luxury reserved for the richest families. Klara’s surprise at learning this suggests that people who come from privilege may not even be aware of it when they live in isolated conditions. It is later revealed that one of the reasons AFs seem embarrassed about being near the store is because they are afraid of being replaced by newer models.
Rosa continues to delight at all the children paired with AFs that she sees, but Klara slowly realizes that some pairs of children and AFs actually don’t seem that happy together. Klara studies what she sees, hoping to learn all the skills she’ll need to be an effective AF.
Once again, Rosa seems to be too optimistic, showing that she is a less skilled observer than Klara. Rosa believes the consumerist promise that a person will be happy if they just buy the right item (such as an AF), but Klara is a more skeptical and realistic observer.
One day, Klara witnesses two taxi drivers fighting in what appears to be a case of road rage. They get out and punch each other, shouting the whole time, then get back into their cars and leave. Rosa, however, believes the drivers were just playing, that they enjoyed the experience and that the pedestrians did too.
Although Rosa is wrong to think the taxi drivers aren’t fighting, her naïve observation nevertheless has some truth to it. Rosa realizes that, on some level, even fights and confrontation are a type of “play” and that there is something theatrical about the way people behave in public.
Klara tries to think of what could make her angry enough to fight someone. While thinking of complicated emotions, she remembers Coffee Cup Lady and an event that happened two days after Klara met Josie. In this memory, Coffee Cup Lady is in her mid-60s and wears a thick wool coat. She is small, wide, and round, like the coffee cups on a shelf inside the store. Coffee Cup Lady crosses the street and embraces a man (Raincoat Man). Manager says they look happy, but Klara says they also seem upset.
The reunion of Coffee Cup Lady and Raincoat Man is not an important event to the plot, but it helps Klara understand some important new things about human behavior. The fact that Klara compares the woman to coffee cups (which she recognizes from her store) shows how limited her experiences in the world are and how few objects she’s seen, but also how she gets creative with her limited experiences so that she can understand new things.
Manager explains to Klara that maybe Coffee Cup Lady and Raincoat Man haven’t seen each other for a very long time. She explains that sometimes people feel pain at the same time as happiness. Rosa doesn’t understand the conversation.
Manager takes an interest in Klara and wants to help her better understand human behavior. While she simplifies her explanations for Klara, the implication is that Coffee Cup Lady and Raincoat Man used to be lovers or perhaps old friends, but they didn’t see each other for a while, and so when they reunite, they are happy to see each other again but also sad, either about how long it’s been or about the circumstances that led to their lack of contact.
At the start of Klara and Rosa’s second week in the window, Josie comes back with her mom (the Mother). Josie apologizes for being gone so long. The Mother watches Klara carefully from a distance—Josie explains that that’s because she knows Klara is the AF that Josie wants.
From the beginning, there is something unusual about the Mother’s relationship with Klara. Because Klara herself does not fully understand the situation, the Mother’s opinions and motivations remain difficult to understand at first. As with Manager, Klara always refers to the Mother with a capital “M,” perhaps reflecting how her model of robot was designed to be friends with children and obey the authority of a mother and a father.
Josie asks if Klara really wants to come home with her, and Klara nods. Josie warns Klara that some days she doesn’t feel so well. She wants Klara to know in advance because Josie herself hates it when people try to pretend that everything is perfect when it’s not. Klara tries to reassure Josie that she wants to help. Josie promises to come back, possibly the next day.
Josie seems to have a very serious chronic illness and is possibly softening her description of this illness for Klara or perhaps not fully aware of how serious it is. Klara’s determination to help reflects her selfless personality.
But Josie doesn’t come the next day or the day after. In the middle of Klara’s second week in the window, Manager moves her back to her previous place in the store, away from the window. Manager says nice things to Klara and Rosa, insisting that they did well in the window, but Klara can tell that a part of her is disappointed.
As Klara develops better powers of observation, she begins to notice that humans do not always say what they seem to be really feeling. Even though Klara isn’t human, this first section of the book resembles a coming-of-age story in which Klara grows up to learn more about the world.
Manager switches things around, and now, instead of always being next to Rosa, Klara is sometimes next to Boy AF Rex or Girl AF Kiku. Klara can still see out the window, and she notices a big device that she names the Cootings Machine (because “Cootings” is written on the side). The Cootings Machine spews pollution and makes the taxi drivers angry. It has a drill to break the ground, and the drill makes a lot of noise.
The Cootings Machine is a construction vehicle working on the street. Presumably, the manufacturer is named “Cootings,” or possibly that’s the name of the model of vehicle. For Klara, it is absurd that humans would tolerate the Cootings Machine being there if it makes them so unhappy. This illustrates how contradictory human behavior looks when viewed from an outside perspective.
The two male AFs in the window don’t get the sunlight they were expecting because of all the pollution from the Cootings Machine. Daytime becomes like night, and the Sun stops coming into the store. Manager assures Klara that the awful Cootings Machine has been out front before, and no AF has ever suffered serious harm from it. Nevertheless, after four days without regular sunlight, Klara feels weaker.
When Klara is cut off from the Sun, it makes her tired and sluggish. Although she is a robot, this provides a parallel with how humans can feel tired or depressed when they are cut off from nature. One of the humorous elements of the novel is that Klara, an artificial robot, often understands the importance of nature better than the humans who live around her.
Then one morning the Cootings Machine is gone, the Sun is back, and everyone outside seems happier. Two days later, a 12-year-old girl with spiky hair comes into the store with her father, who wears an expensive office suit. The girl seems interested in Klara, but Klara just looks into the distance at the ceramic coffee cups on the shelf. Klara knows Manager is watching them.
Klara is distant around the new girl because she feels that she has made a promise to Josie, and she doesn’t want to break that promise by being purchased by another child.
Manager tells the girl that Klara is excellent but that there are even newer models called B3s available that might be better. The girl still wants Klara, but her father convinces her to look at the new B3 models. Later, Manager tells Klara she is surprised at her. She reminds Klara that the customer chooses the AF, not the other way around. Manager says she won’t help Klara the next time. She warns Klara not to trust promises made by children.
The Manager understands what’s going through Klara’s head, so she intervenes in a way that will steer the girl and her parent to buy another robot instead. Still, Manager scolds Klara after customer leaves. This scene shows how personal feelings, such as Manager’s sympathies toward Klara, often conflict with the duties and obligations of a job, like running a store.
The new B3 models, three Boy AFs, are calibrated and take up positions in the store. Rosa and Klara are moved to a different side of the store to make space for the B3s.
The arrival of the new B3 models suggests the beginning of a new era and that Rosa and Klara may soon become obsolete.
One day, when it seems like nothing noteworthy is happening, a boy and his mother come into the store. Klara only realizes later that they’ve bought Rosa, and soon Rosa is taken to the back room to be shipped away.
Rosa’s sudden disappearance indicates that, ultimately, the economic interests of the store are more important than the friendship between Rosa and Klara, hinting at humanity’s materialistic nature.
In the days after Rosa leaves, Boy AF Rex also finds a home and more new B3 models come in. Though the older AFs are nice to the new B3s, Klara notices that the new B3s have been slowly moving away from the older AFs. Klara realizes the B3s are intentionally trying to look like a separate group.
Although it might seem that the robots would all have something in common, in reality, the small differences between them cause them to form separate groups. This is a microcosm for human society.
One afternoon, Manager informs Klara that she’s going to have one more chance in the window, this time alone. She promises that she’ll find Klara a home. Klara still enjoys watching the outside world from the window, but she finds it harder to get excited.
Although Manager does not say so aloud, the implication here is that if Klara isn’t sold soon, she might never be sold. It is never revealed what happens to the robots that are deemed unsellable.
On Klara’s fourth day in the window, she witnesses something strange with Beggar Man (a man who lives on the street with his dog). She sees Beggar Man just lying on the ground, not moving. People pass by but don’t do anything, other than pausing for a second before moving on. Klara is sad, believing Beggar Man has died. But the next morning, she finds that Beggar Man is sitting up and hasn’t died; Klara believes the nourishment of the sun has saved him.
Just like Coffee Cup Lady, Beggar Man teaches Klara something about the outside world. The little scene Klara witnesses has parallels to religious doctrines about people rising from the dead, such as the resurrection of Jesus or perhaps the resurrection of the ancient Egyptian god Osiris (who was sometimes identified with the sky). What’s more, the fall and rise of Beggar Man mimics the daily fall and rise of the Sun.
Klara’s time in the window ends. Manager tells her she did well, but then, 10 days later, Klara is moved to a rear alcove. Manager tells her that it’s only temporary, and that in a few days, Klara will be moved back to mid-store.
Manager’s actions seem to contradict her words. One of the major turning points in Klara’s development was when she learned that humans don’t always say exactly what they’re thinking.
Klara can’t see much from her position in the back, but she can still hear things, and one day she hears Josie coming back with the Mother. Klara hears Josie tell the Mother about how this is the right store but the AF she’s looking for isn’t there anymore. Manager tells Josie about a B3 model that’s available.
Although Klara understands what’s happening, she remains passive and doesn’t move out front to greet Josie. This illustrates how Klara is obedient and how she ultimately feels that her duty is more important than doing what she would prefer.
Josie says they must be too late to get the AF she really wanted. But Manager overhears her and says she’ll check the back. She brings Klara out and Josie is overjoyed. Josie explains that she would’ve come back sooner, but she got sick. Manager assures the Mother that, while Klara isn’t a B3, her model still has a very good reputation.
Despite scolding Klara earlier, Manager is ultimately sympathetic to Klara’s wishes, even when they do not necessarily match the best interests of the store. Manager tells the Mother the exact opposite of what she told the earlier family who wanted to buy Klara, showing how humans change their approach based on the audience.
The Mother is intrigued when Manager mentions that Klara is very observant. The Mother asks Klara questions about Josie to test Klara’s powers of observation, all of which Klara answers correctly. Josie has a slight limp, which the Mother asks Klara to imitate. Klara feels everyone watching her, particularly the Mother, who stares so intensely that it’s like she’s looking through Klara. At last, the Mother agrees with Josie that they should buy Klara and take her home.
While Josie bases her preference for Klara on feeling, the Mother uses more objective criteria to evaluate Klara as a purchase, showing that people’s values change as they get older. By asking Klara to imitate Josie’s limp, the Mother wants Klara to prove that she knows how to observe her daughter closely. Josie’s limp is one of the most distinctive things about her, showing how people can be defined by their illnesses. The Mother and Josie’s decision to purchase Klara wraps up this prologue-like section of the story and marks the beginning of a new period.