Associate professor of genetics Don Tillman knows the best way to solve a problem is to approach it rationally and systematically. So when he decides it’s time to get married, he applies his considerable skills to finding a solution. For Don, this means a questionnaire that only his best match can answer correctly. Soon, he has over 300 completed forms, but is certain no applicant fulfils his requirements. Don’s mate Gene has superior knowledge of and experience with women, so when he offers to help choose a few likely candidates for the Wife Project, Don concedes he might be useful, and gives him the questionnaires. When Rosie Jarman knocks on Don’s office door – sent by Gene – Don naturally assumes she’s there for the Wife Project and asks her to have dinner with him. But Rosie is not at all suitable: she smokes, she arrives late and she’s a vegetarian.
Rosie has a problem of her own to solve: the true identity of her biological father. She has a few suspects in mind and Don is just the person to help. As Don embarks on the Father Project with Rosie, his carefully scheduled life steadily unravels, opening his eyes to a future he hadn’t thought he’d experience.
In choosing Don Tillman as the narrator of The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion has blessed the literary world with a wonderful and unique character. Don has Asperger’s Syndrome, though he doesn’t recognise it himself, and this lends his narrative voice a brilliantly honest tone – since Don can’t help but relate the truth of any situation (as he sees it), he is almost the opposite of an unreliable narrator. Of course, Don’s exceptional view of the world often leads him to misconstrue actions and circumstances, and much of the book’s humour comes from reading between Don’s lines. He tells us that the role of buffoon is one he has chosen for himself, as a coping mechanism:
I had, to some extent, become comfortable with being socially odd. At school, I had been the unintentional class clown, and eventually the intentional one.
It is often said that it’s harder to write a funny book than it is to write a dramatic one, and it is a sign of Simsion’s skill that the comedy in The Rosie Project seems effortless. His knack for writing gentle humour and slapstick moments – the innovative use of a medical-school skeleton comes to mind – means that although we are essentially laughing at Don, we are still on his side.
As funny as the novel is, it is also a touching study of our innate desire for companionship and acceptance. Don is someone who has spent his life knowing he doesn’t fit in and devising appropriate coping mechanisms, and he decides that his wife should be someone compatible with his not-so-neurotypical personality, hence the questionnaire. It is only through the time he spends with Rosie – and Gene and his wife, Claudia – that he begins to understand it is more important to find a partner who will accept him as he is, rather than find someone with a matching personality. Rosie broadens Don’s horizons, and helps him see that he need not be as isolated as he has allowed himself to become; if he gives others the chance to know him, he will find more friends who accept him just as he is.
The Rosie Project is a tender, heart-warming and completely charming comedy that is a pure joy to read.
Graeme Simsion The Rosie Project Text Publishing 2013 PB 336pp $29.99
Kylie Mason is a freelance book editor based in Sydney. http://www.kyliemmason.com
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