Graeme Simsion: The Rosie Project

I may have found a solution to the Wife Problem. As with so many scientific breakthroughs, the answer was obvious in retrospect. But had it not been for a series of unscheduled events, it is unlikely I would have discovered it.

The sequence was initiated my Gene insisting I give a lecture on Asperger’s syndrome that he had previously agreed to deliver himself. The timing was extremely annoying. The preparation could be time-shared with lunch consumption, but on the designated evening I had scheduled ninety-four minutes to clean my bathroom. I was faced with a choice of three options, none of them satisfactory.


Why I read it

Bloody hell, this is an exciting reason for reading a book: because it’s the first book on the list, for the first book club I’ll have ever joined. I will soon be meeting some new lovely and interesting people for book related chats. That’s going to be fun.

Halfway through the book I realised there is also a reason I should have already read the book: because my mum recommended it to me. I’d totally forgotten about this until I got to the Flounder Incident, which she’d described while telling me why I’d like the book – a recommendation I promptly filed away in the nether-head and forgot about.

This is another piece of evidence suggesting I should listen to people who know me well when they say I should read something. Because I really, really enjoyed this book.

What it’s about

Don Tillman is a genetics researcher at a large Melbourne Uni. He’s well and truly “on the spectrum”. The Asperger’s lecture he gives right at the beginning provides the first of many, many examples of hilarious dramatic irony when we realise he doesn’t realise he’s a classic ‘aspy’.

Claudia asked whether I had enjoyed the Asperger’s lecture. […] ‘Did the symptoms remind you of anyone?’ she asked.

They certainly did. They were an almost perfect description of Laszlo Hevesi in the Physics Department.

The book’s plot is driven by Tillman’s latest project, the Wife Project, in which he’s going to find his perfect match via a scientifically-constructed survey he hands out to women. Things are quickly thrown into chaos when Rosie enters the picture – a woman who fails nearly every single one of Tillman’s criteria yet somehow helps him have some of the best times of his life (excluding those times he went to the Museum of Natural History, of course).

It’s funny – largely through the dramatic irony – and moving and sad and uplifting and even profound.

Being Don Tillman

Neil Gaiman recently wrote in the Guardian about the power of fiction to make you another person for a day:

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. … [With prose fiction] you learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

The Rosie Project is case in point. Compare being Don Tillman (while reading this book) to observing Sheldon Cooper (while watching Big Bang Theory on TV). It’s a magical experience to be Don for a day – in particular, to see that he sees how others see him. He knows he’s socially awkward, and sometimes he chooses to expend the necessary brainpower to try and compensate, and other times he’s learned just to roll with the punches. We get so much more understanding and compassion than we do for Dr Cooper.

Laszlo … or Don?

I was exuberantly trying to describe Don to J after I’d read the book. “He totally reminds me of [good friend from work]” I said, laughing, knowing as I said it that I’d totally just ‘done a Don’. Because he reminded me of me, too.

I too work in science. I too have conversations with co-workers about using statistics to ascertain whether we are engaging in social activities in what classifies as a ‘typical’ way. I too can drive for twelve hours with the same CD on repeat. I too can eat the same meals over and over and over. I have Projects with capital Ps and when I get together with “good friend from work” we discuss our latest Projects together. Just as Don became a bartender by studying up until he knew every single martini (using mnemonic techniques), I am trying to learn Japanese by first studying up until I know every single kanji character (using mnemonic techniques). And on and on.

Of course, I am also very different to Don. I find socialising a much more natural process than he does. I wouldn’t show a student a four-day-old flounder carcass to make a point about evolution. I am not a slave to a routine. My bathroom is much messier.

For me, the benefits of the book were the views both ways: I got to understand better the differences between Don and me; but I also got to read about someone with whom I share certain traits and be told, like Vonnegut says of all fiction, “You’re not alone.”

Morals and things

Ultimately the story of Don is one that transcends Aspergers. It’s the story of the ‘freak’ who learns that what makes him different can be a strength, not a disability. It’s the story of the ‘alien’ who has more humanity than the rest of us. It’s the story of the underdog who overcomes obstacles to attain greater self-realisation. We’re all freaks and aliens and underdogs in some specific way, and that makes the story universal.

Somehow, despite the true-and-tested tropes, the story never becomes cliched or predictable. This is a nice trick if you can pull it off (well done Mr Simsion, v admiring and envious). The humour helps – it’s laugh-out-loud funny all the way through – but Don’s blunt voice also helps by cutting through what could be sentimental bullshit and re-establishing a down-to-earth tone.

My version of the book has a sticker on the front: ‘Top 50 books you can’t put down.’ I usually take claims like that with a grain of salt. After not being able to put this book down, though, I retract my scepticism and heartily recommend it to you in the same way I’ve just recommended it to “close friend from work”: It’s laugh-out-loud funny, and you will not be able to put it down.


This book was mostly read in Port Mac.


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