[1 October 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Pop culture has seemingly become obsessed with those who function highly on the autism spectrum: from Christopher Boone, the young protagonist of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, to Sheldon Cooper of TV’s The Big Bang Theory, portraying those with Asperger’s syndrome in entertainment has become hip.
Now you can add Professor Don Tillman of Australian writer Graeme Simsion’s debut novel, The Rosie Project to the mix. As with the case of Cooper, Tillman is a character played for laughs: someone who is socially inept to the point of obsessive and unrealistic punctuality, and partially as a result, has also never gotten beyond a first date with a woman. This latter factor leads Don to embark on “the Wife Project”, or a 16-page questionnaire of the sort that a professional matchmaker might produce, so that the 39-year-old will meet his match without having to go through the awkward unpleasantries of actually having to meet non-suitable partners in the flesh. And, thus, avoid embarrassing first dates that don’t work out.
Of course, you probably know where this plot is going. In walks a woman ten years his juror, who smokes (a non-starter), drinks too much (also a non-starter) and is habitually and constantly late (definitely a non-starter), and the pair circle around each other, predictably falling in love despite their varying and obvious differences. But there’s a sub-plot: it turns out that Rosie is looking for her biological father after being tormented (abused would probably be too strong of a word, as this is a rom-com after all, and things can’t go too bleak as per the conventions of the genre) by the man who raised her as a single parent (the mother died while Rosie was young).
Well, it turns out Don is a professor of genetics, so The Rosie Project is about the madcap relationship the two have looking for Rosie’s real father, but that, of course, is just pure backdrop to the usual “man meets woman, man loses woman, man dresses like Gregory Peck from To Kill a Mockingbird to win her back” story.
Already published in places such as the author’s native Australia, Great Britain and Canada, The Rosie Project now lands in the US with a great deal of hype – Sony Pictures has already optioned the book, and Simsion is hard at work on a sequel. The book’s Canadian publisher, Harper Collins Canada, is calling the book “the feel-good hit of 2013” on its website. The book is reportedly being translated into 30 languages. And Entertainment Weekly recently put the book on a list of anticipated fall releases, including novels from such heavy literary hitters as Donna Tartt, Wally Lamb and Helen Fielding.
Not bad for something that started out as a screenplay but then transmuted into a book that won the 2012 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. Also not bad considering that the writer was 50 years old and had run a successful consulting business before picking up a writing instrument. That The Rosie Project has been so successful globally is an oddly heartwarming story in and of itself, considering that the author basically hit a home run on his first at bat.
But the reason that The Rosie Project is so successful because it’s so cookie-cutter predictable. You know this is a heterosexual romantic version of The Odd Couple from the get go and, if you don’t know how this sort of thing ends without picking up the book first, well, you probably haven’t read enough Chick Lit. And it’s odd that The Rosie Project succeeds so well as Chick Lit, considering that it is written by a man and all.
That success is driven by the likability of the main characters: Don Tillman is a character who is social inept, but not too socially inept. (He knows a form of karate to get him out of tough spots and prevent him from being bullied.) Likewise, Rosie self describes herself as being, quote, “fucked up”, but she’s not too fucked up. Her flaws, and there are a few, are actually becoming and just accentuate how attractive she is as a person because she’s, at least, interesting. And, for a Chick Lit book, The Rosie Project has an unusual feminist slant: Rosie, at one point, accuses Don of objectifying women through the mere existence of his questionnaire. That seems very rare for a novel of this pedigree.
The Rosie Project is also a moving book, even if it is mired in deep predictability, owing to its original status as a screenplay. (The book reads like it could be a very conventional Hollywood movie.) In fact, by the time that Don and Rosie share a dance together in the book’s midsection, tears of happiness and unadulterated joy were welling up in my eyes. I was so happy for these make-believe people. And since this book is coming from a guy, all I can say is that Simsion must be tapped into his feminine side very well, to make a man like me nearly needing to wad up a few sheets of Kleenex and dab my eyes with them. That Sinsion can do this speaks to the power and the range of believability of the book – even if having a couple dance to denote their suitability as romantic partners is a trope as old as the Fred and Ginger movies.
In fact, this book is the anti-thesis of Kelly Braffet’s recently published Save Yourself, a book so relentlessly dark that reading it could make you feel like you’ve lost the will to live. The Rosie Project is comparably so optimistic, funny and life-affirming that, no matter how low you might be feeling, the novel is a guaranteed pick-you-up. The other good thing about The Rosie Project is that, for the most part, it’s message is about being yourself and offers the grain of truth that no matter how messed up or socially inadequate you may be, the perfect person may be out there somewhere waiting for you. It’s a positive message that’s worth hearing, as redundant and obvious as it might seem.
But then something happens to The Rosie Project. After tramping around Australia and then moving to New York for a passage before going Down Under again, it ends with a thud. After hearing for 95 percent of the book that individuality is a special thing, Don then goes out and tries to change himself so that he becomes a much more desirable suitor. What’s more, as an indignity and insult to anyone with a cognitive disorder, Don learns that he can better himself by watching Hollywood movies!
Now, don’t get me wrong, I do think that Asperger’s syndrome is a serious social impairment that affects the lives of a great deal of intelligent and capable men, and sure, behavioral therapy might be needed in some cases to allow some of these men to better function socially in society. But I sincerely doubt that watching When Harry Met Sally or just about anything with Julia Roberts in it is going to make you a better and more desirable person to court.
This plucked note of the novel just feels wrong on so many levels, that it blunts its overall impact. The Rosie Project is otherwise pretty believable as a piece of fiction about imperfect people. That one of them attempts to attain perfection by modeling themselves on something that is merely an idealized state feels hollow somehow. Especially considering that Don and Rosie seemed to be getting along rather smashingly well up to that point, save for a hiccup or two.
Disappointment about the very end of the novel aside, The Rosie Project is compelling. I read the nearly 300 pages of this book in short order – in about three individual sittings over the course of a single day. It’s that likeable and readable of a novel, which would be a strong commendation if not for the sudden change of heart in the last 50 or so pages. Still, for most of the ride, The Rosie Project is a crowd-pleasing read, and a rarity in Chick Lit circles: a romance for women that men wouldn’t be embarrassed to pick up.
Additionally, there can’t be enough books (or movies, or TV shows) that depict the lives of someone who goes through live with a cognitive disorder or impairment as compassionately as Simsion does here. While Don Tillman is played for humor, not once does Simsion belittle or turn the character into a caricature. Don feels very real, and you wind up pulling for him all the way and hope that he finds a life lived with happiness.