In Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, Australian genetics professor Don Tillman wants to find a wife. Alas, schedule-bound, just plain dorky Don has never made it past a first date. Then he hits on the idea of launching a Wife Project with a questionnaire, “a purpose-built, scientifically valid instrument…to filter out the time wasters, the disorganized, the ice-cream discriminators…” and much more. Don, it would seem, has all the classic indicators of Asperger syndrome. But he doesn’t identify that way, which is crucial to understanding the pleasures of this ingratiating first novel, a LIbraryReads October pick.
“The first outing I gave Don was in a short story I took to my writing class, where everyone called it a story about Asperger syndrome,” observed Simsion in a phone call from his native Australia. “But I didn’t want Don to be a syndrome. I wanted a living, walking character.” Simsion was ahead of his classmates in understanding that good fiction does not work by type and, like Don himself, outright rejected that box. Similarly, Rosie, who comes Don’s way via the Wife Project and stays to get help finding her biological father, is quick to resist any you’re-smart-for-a-barmaid labeling. But though she seems like the “normal” one here, in her assumptions about men Rosie proves to be as socially blinkered as Don. Notes Simsion wryly, “Classification can be slippery.”
He should know, having worked for 30 years in IT, focusing on database design (“it’s all about classification and classification theory”). In his time spent researching and teaching, Simsion has also met many people like Don, including a good friend of 30 years whose voice he accessed while crafting his main character. Don’s urge to order comes naturally in the scientific world, and Simsion himself can identify. “Don tries to see the world in a totally rational way,” he explains. “It’s the attitude you must adopt when working on a technical problem rather than a people problem, which involves emotion and character.”
For Don, everything seems like a technical problem, and he embraces reason’s primacy. But in fact, “he’s frightened of his emotions, and they rule him more than he admits,” says Simsion. Don carefully explains to himself why he should help Rosie find her father and justifies joining her in a taxi because it saves fossil fuel, but he really just wants to be with her. Perhaps the most affecting aspect of the novel is Don’s thinking his way to the recognition that he, too, can love. In this regard, he’s more grounded than his friend Gene (“Don’s dark side,” Simsion says), who’s fooling only himself as he relentlessly cheats on his wife. And he’s ahead of Rosie, who, says Simsion, “has a long journey to find out what she wants.”
Five years in planning and written as a novel in just four weeks, The Rosie Project started out as a screenplay, and switching formats proved wise. “In the screenplay I couldn’t talk about Don’s interior life, but now I could tell the story as it should be told,” Simsion clarifies. The screenplay proved beneficial in one regard, however. After an initial run through, the actors declared that Simsion had made a “terrible” choice in the father Don discovered for Rosie, setting him off in a satisfying new direction.
Simsion’s trial-and-error path toward a debut so far sold to 40 countries mimics Don’s own final realization that a string of unlikely events has led him to Rosie. Reason can’t control everything, genetics doesn’t determine our fate, and sometimes—as in this bright, whip-snappingly funny romantic comedy—happy coincidence rules. But the coincidences wouldn’t work without Don’s push forward, even as he repeatedly lands in unexpected situations that make us laugh. Readers, too, will push eagerly through the narrative, and at the end they’ll have one thought: thanks goodness there’s a sequel.