That’s what happened to me earlier this week when, feeling down in the dumps and looking for something to lift my spirits, I picked up a novel that was written in Australia but made its way to me via Coquitlam, BC, thanks to my sister, who had sent me her copy months ago.
Everything about it appeared upbeat, including its turquoise cover featuring a stylized red and white bicycle, and a straightforward title: The Rosie Project.
I jumped right in. Two days later, I had arrived at page 324 and the end of Graeme Simsion’s sweet and funny first novel. I got there smiling, and also with a sigh, because the story’s protagonist, Don Tillman, is beyond endearing and I would have gladly followed him to his next Project, and the one after that as well.
Just thinking about Don makes me smile.
A forty year-old geneticist with a tenured position at a university in Melbourne, Australia, he is also the novel’s narrator, and thanks to Simsion’s witty and nimble writing, we know before we’ve reached the end of the second page that he isn’t your average nerd (if such a thing exists).
Don, in fact, is most likely on the autism spectrum (Asperger’s syndrome?). We know this quickly because the novel begins with Don giving an evening lecture at a local school titled “Genetic Precursors to Autism Spectrum Disorders”, during which his completely un-ironic description of the traits associated with Asperger’s syndrome ― organisation, focus, innovative thinking and rational detachment― are also perfect descriptions of himself; a fact which, of course, never dawns on him.
In many ways, this is what makes the book work. Despite the frequent overload of information in his mind (and it’s a rather beautiful
mind), and despite his ability to apply the scientific method to everything around him, Don doesn’t feel himself part of anything, and certainly doesn’t think that he belongs to any community―even the autism spectrum community. He feels, instead, very much alone.
This sense of isolation is actually what drives Don’s original quest, which he names The Wife Project (though he has or has had at least a handful of friends, including his colleague Gene and Gene’s wife Claudia, and also Daphne, now gone, but a close friend and neighbour who developed Alzheimer’s and whom he cared for with touching tenderness).
The Wife Project is the entry point of this novel. We begin by following Don through the complex world of online dating, which remains mostly inscrutable to him (and probably to most of us!) despite his best attempts to streamline and systematize the process by generating a long, Don-specific questionnaire (which is at once naïve, blunt, hilarious and alarming) designed to likely eliminate 99% of potential romantic candidates.
What happens next? Well, Rosie of course. Added to the mix by Don’s mischievous and lecherous friend Gene who sets them up on a dinner date at a posh restaurant, Rosie clearly does not meet Don’s questionnaire criteria.
In Don’s meticulously structured life that includes timetables, a Standardized Meal System, and an immediate awareness of everyone’s BMI (body mass index, which he shares with the reader in his descriptions of every person introduced into the story), Rosie is a slender vegetarian red-head who smokes, works as a barmaid…and throws a monkey wrench.
From this point on, the novel moves ever closer to its title, as Graeme Simsion sets up a compelling and sweet dynamic between a perceptive Rosie, who sees Don clearly (and with amusement and frequent exasperation), and a confused Don, who, though convinced that Rosie has no place on any of his life lists, is nevertheless drawn to her, as though by gravity.
The method Don contrives to stay in Rosie’s orbit is The Father Project, in which Don offers his expertise as a geneticist to help Rosie find her biological father. This project takes the two on a series of bumbling adventures through Australia and even to New York City, collecting DNA samples under false pretenses from the men who may have been Rosie’s progenitor.
At the same time, over the course of The Father Project, it becomes clearer and clearer to the reader that Don is changing and becoming ever more aware that what he feels for Rosie―whom he considers “the most beautiful woman in the world”―is irrational and transformative…and wonderful. Rosie, on the other hand, whose father issues obscure what seems obvious to us (if not to Don), is slower to perceive Don’s capacity for change and willingness to become a better, more socially adapted man.
In a touching moment, late in the novel, Don observes:
“A window went dark, a traffic light changed from red to green, an ambulance’s flashing lights bounced off the buildings. And it dawned on me that I had not designed the questionnaire to find a woman I could accept, but to find someone who might accept me.”
I think that The Rosie Project is a smash hit because of its cleverness, humour and simplicity, which make it immensely appealing. But what I think readers love most about it is the irresistible way it reminds us that we are all searching for our place on the love spectrum.
Note to readers:
Finally, Don Tillman and Rosie’s adventures continue in the recently published sequel, The Rosie Effect, which is also available at the Library!
Such is Don Tillman’s irresistibility that he now has his own Twitter account!
If you love The Rosie Project (which I can almost guarantee), then you may also enjoy the following novels, which feature protagonists who are equally original, quirky and affecting:
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time;