“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.”