Book Review: The Rosie Project

The Rosie Project


“As usual, my assumptions about human behaviour were wrong.” – The Rosie Project


Ahh, it’s summer at last in southern Ontario! Time to head outside with your book or ereader and enjoy the long days.  Time for a book that’s not too demanding, with a story compelling enough to keep your eyes on the page amidst the distractions of the breeze blowing your hair, the waves lapping against the dock or, if you’re in the city, some guy yelling “Fuck off!” at his bicycle over and over. That book’s going to be different for everyone, of course. If funny, charming, and clever is what you like, you’ll enjoy meeting Don Tillman, hero of  The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion.

You’ve probably seen copies of The Rosie Project on display at the front of your favourite bookstore. The novel started life in a screenwriter’s class, and has been sold in over thirty territories, earning first-time author Graeme Simsion a nice sum of money. Does the book live up to the hype? Mostly, yes.

Thirty-nine-year-old genetics professor Don Tillman likes things just so. He eats the same lobster salad every Tuesday, schedules ninety-four minutes to clean his bathroom, and practices aikido three times per week. His rigid attachment to routine, and difficulty interpreting other people’s feelings alerts us to his probable Asperger’s. But, like many of us, Don doesn’t see himself the same way others do.

So when Don decides he should get married he logically embarks on The Wife Project.  Having abandoned the traditional “dating paradigm” because “the probability of success did not justify the effort and negative experiences” — who would disagree? — he creates a questionnaire to screen out inappropriate spousal candidates such as smokers, vegans, “crystal gazers”, and the chronically late. He’s helped by his friend Gene (who may not be that helpful, since his own project is to sleep with one woman from each country on his world map) and Gene’s long-suffering wife Claudia, a psychologist who gently guides Don through the murky waters of social conventions and other people’s emotions.

Then Rosie walks into Don’s office. She is an inappropriate candidate for The Wife Project in practically every way —  unpunctual, spontaneous and a smoker. It wouldn’t make sense for Don to see her again. But he’s surprised to find he experiences  “unexpected moment[s] of feeling good” when they are together.  So when Rosie tells him she would like a geneticist’s help in identifying her birth father, he agrees to help, and The Father Project  is born. At a point when Rosie is ready to abandon the project, he continues because he wants to be with her.

The story zings along entertainingly and many scenes would translate well to the big screen. It owes a lot to my favourite comedy, Howard Hawks’s Bringing up Baby, in which Cary Grant’s stuffy university professor is won over by Katharine Hepburn’s zany antics.

Don’s narration works to comic effect wonderfully. His ability to observe precisely but miss the point entirely is the source of much of the book’s humour. Simsion does a great job of including enough information about what’s going on around Don that we see the gaps in his understanding, and both laugh with him and feel for him. This is played perfectly in a hilarious date scene at the beginning of the book, when Don takes Elizabeth, a computer scientist of strong “evidence-based” opinions, out for dinner and ice cream. Incredulous that Elizabeth claims she can discern the difference between peach and mango ice cream, Don “explained the physiology of tastebud chilling in some detail.” He decides she should taste-test the two flavours, “but by the time the serving person had prepared them, and I turned to ask Elizabeth to close her eyes for the experiment, she had gone. So much for ‘evidence-based’.  And for computer ‘scientist’.” Indeed.

The book would have been more satisfying for me if the secondary characters were more than foils for Don Tillman. The explanation for Rosie’s anger towards her stepfather lacked conviction, and I didn’t feel like I knew enough about her to explain why she falls for Don (even if, as she describes him, he looks like Gregory Peck. Well, ok, that might be a good enough reason.) Darker days in Don’s past are hinted at with references to his deceased sister, but we never get much more of a glimpse into his family. And why doesn’t Claudia kick Gene’s adulterous ass? A little bit of shadow to throw the light into relief might have taken The Rosie Project beyond fun and diverting to truly poignant and touching.

At the core of this story is the idea that love has the power to change people in fundamental ways. That’s a pretty romantic notion, but it’s one we like to hold on to and tell ourselves over and over — see every Shakespeare comedy ever.  Simsion creates a central figure who, despite his “variant” nature is really us.  We cheer him on with sympathy and goodwill in his search for connection. When he admits he’s confused that his feelings don’t make rational sense, Rosie answers simply, “Welcome to the real world.”




Book Review: Summer Days, Starry Nights

Summer Days, Starry Nights

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”  — C.S. Lewis


I don’t usually write about kids and teen books. I know a lot of adults read extensively in the YA genre, especially since Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series — a crossover success which was a huge hit with adult women — but it’s not a genre I dip into often. But I made an exception recently for a middle-school novel called Summer Days, Starry Nights by Vikki Vansickle. When I first met Vikki I had no idea she was a published author. Summer Days, Starry Nights is her fourth book. I was in the mood for a light, summery read to pick up between stepping out of the Murakamiverse and into the dystopian future of Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood. Summer Days, Starry Nights provided a little vacation getaway on my couch.

It’s 1962, and thirteen-year-old Reenie Starr is enjoying the sunshine at Sandy Shores, the family resort her parents own and run in Ontario cottage country. The middle child of three, Reenie is on the edge of adulthood and navigating the murky emotional waters of the Starr family: her mother “Mimi”, a sometimes troubled and distant parent; her caring father who holds the family and business together; Bo, her sixteen-year-old brother who dreams of a life elsewhere; and six-year-old baby sister Scarlett, who Reenie imagines is the graceful and perfect daughter her mother prefers. Reenie loves Sandy Shores, and associates it with everything good and safe in her world. But when a newcomer arrives in the form of seventeen-year-old Gwendolyn Cates, the glamorous daughter of a family friend, things begin to change. Where does Bo sneak off to each night? Who is writing letters to Gwen, and why does she seem so sad? Why does Mimi insist on embarrassing Reenie by trying to be friends with Gwen? And how will Reenie balance her desire to enter the exciting world of adults with her wish that everything at Sandy Shores stay the same forever?

Vikki ably paces her story — mysteries unfold, friendships blossom, and as the stakes are raised on the action, the suspense builds to a satisfying climax and big reveal. Throughout, the language is straightforward enough to move the plot along, but evocative and layered enough to be emotionally satisfying for a sensitive reader. Here is Reenie describing herself:

I definitely notice more than Bo or Scarlett. But maybe that’s because Bo is too busy with his guitar and Scarlett is too busy being adorable. Being in the middle makes me perfectly positioned to notice things that others don’t.

There’s a lot of information in that short passage: Bo’s increasing rebellion and withdrawal from the family, Scarlett’s importance as the charming centre of attention in the Starr household, and Reenie’s position — as she sees it — outside the circle. Even as Reenie explains her role of observer, there’s a hint of sadness.

The smell of the pines, the cool sand on your sun-drenched feet, the sound of screen doors slamming, and the awe-inspiring sight of the stars twinkling in a velvet sky are all vividly evoked in Vikki’s description of Sandy Shores, where the air  “smells like a combination of lake water, campfire, grass and tanning oil. It is sweet, salty, pungent and fresh.”

A dramatic revelation, well developed characters, and natural dialogue all combine to create an engaging summer read perfect for a smart ten- to twelve-year-old girl.  And its old-fashioned charm will entertain older readers who remember sitting on the front porch with a glass of lemonade and the latest Trixie Belden or Judy Blume novel.

Thank you, Vikki, it was just what I needed!

Summer Days, Starry Nights is published by Scholastic, and you can meet the author, Vikki VanSickle, at Chapters Brampton on Sunday June 23, at 1:00 pm.

(Incidentally, if you actually remember Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew in their original incarnations, you will love this website devoted to vintage series books.)