I’m usually very reluctant to read books, especially when they’ve been much-hyped. I find that I’m almost immediately offside with a book that’s been over-praised even before publication. I might read it months or years later when all the hoo-ha has died away or I might never read them. However, I heard an interesting discussion about The Rosie Project on the ABC’s Book Club program & we had the ebook available at work (there was a long reservation queue for the hard copy) so I thought I’d give it a go.
Don Tillman is a genetics professor at a Melbourne university. He believes in routine & order. He lives his life by schedules & the lists written on his whiteboard. He has few friends, only Gene, a colleague at work & his wife, Claudia. Don is somewhere on the autism spectrum. His relationships with women have been disastrous, the most recent date ended badly when he tried to convince his date that she couldn’t tell the difference between mango & apricot ice cream because all ice cream tastes the same. Approaching his 40th birthday, Don decides that it’s time he married so he devises the Wife Project, a scientific questionnaire to find the perfect partner.
A questionnaire! Such an obvious solution. A purpose-built, scientifically valid instrument incorporating current best practice to filter out the time wasters, the disorganised, the ice cream discriminators, the visual harassment complainers, the crystal gazers, the horoscope readers, the fashion obsessives, the religious fanatics, the vegans, the sports watchers, the creationists, the smokers, the scientifically illiterate, the homeopaths, leaving, ideally, the perfect partner, or, realistically, a manageable shortlist of candidates.
You can see from this list what Don is preoccupied with. His social interactions are awkward because he doesn’t pick up the emotional cues from the people he meets. Gene helps Don sort through the applicants & tries to convince him to loosen up some of the criteria but doesn’t have much success. So, he sends Rosie to see Don &, although Rosie is the opposite of the woman Don imagined when he prepared his questionnaire, they become friends, mostly as a result of misunderstandings.
Rosie is a student working part time as a bartender. She is a free spirit compared to Don. She smokes, she’s fussy about food (she’s basically vegetarian but eats seafood if it’s sustainable) & she claims to be able to tell the flavours of ice cream apart in a blind test. Rosie is also obsessed with finding out the identity of her father. Before she died when Rosie was 12, her mother told her that she wasn’t the child of her husband Phil. Rosie has found Phil wanting ever since. Her mother had a fling with one of her fellow medical students after graduation but didn’t say who it was. With Don’s help, Rosie sets out to collect the DNA of all the possible candidates & discover her father. This becomes the Father Project.
Don & Rosie’s friendship grows as their commitment to the Father Project increases. Don is intrigued by Rosie & the turning point is when he realises that even though she’s totally unsuitable as a partner according to his questionnaire, he has had the most fun in his life with Rosie (apart from his visits to the American Museum of Natural History in New York). Every time they seem to be growing closer, Don’s lack of social perception spoils the moment & almost ends their friendship. He decides to start the Rosie Project to try to change his life for the better.
The Rosie Project began life as a screenplay & eventually, after being turned into a short story & then a novel, won the Victorian Premier’s Award for an unpublished manuscript in 2012. It’s been sold to 30 countries & I’m sure the film rights are about to be sold if they haven’t been already. I enjoyed the book very much with only a few reservations. Maybe it was Don’s narration or maybe it’s because it was originally a screenplay but there was very little sense of place. If it wasn’t stated that it was set in Melbourne, I would have thought it was set in an American city. There’s no sense of Melbourne at all apart from a few mentions of pubs. Don grew up in Shepparton but, again, it could have been any midwestern American town. The only moment when there was a sense of being in Australia was when Don’s brother called him Mate on the phone.
On the other hand, there’s a lot of humour & some very poignant moments as well. Don has an awareness that his social perceptions are not the same as everyone else’s. Although he sees this as “simply variations in human brain function that had been inappropriately medicalised because they did not fit social norms – constructed social norms – that reflected the most common human configurations rather than the full range.”, he knows that his lack of friends & close personal relationships derives from his different brain function. His voice is quirky & very endearing. The Rosie Project is a book that looks at some serious issues with a very light touch & I enjoyed reading it.