In the midst of being immersed in the sprawling worlds of Westeros and Essos, I picked up The Rosie Project as a mental respite from my second reread of book five of George R. R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice and Fire series. Giddy, swooping fantasy novels have always been my preference, so it was with some trepidation I picked up Graham Simsion’s cheerful debut. I’d been throroughly recommended it by a number of people, and with a slew of five-star reviews on Amazon, I decided it couldn’t hurt to stop playing the game of thrones for a few hours.
To be honest, I was mostly cynical about the novel primarily due to the fact that Professor Don Tillman, the protagonist, was evidently on the autistic spectrum and had some form of Aspergers Syndrome. I am wary of any story which uses mental illness and/or behavioural disorders as a plot device due to the fact that they are notoriously tricky to get right. Diagnosing and living with a mental disorder is hard enough, let alone successfully recreating it in a narrative medium that doesn’t make the character too “mental” or “crazy”, shall we say. My major criticism with regards to this (and particularly, through the use of Aspergers) was the main reason why I disliked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Mark Haddon’s infamous story about an Aspergers boy called Christopher who went on a quest to find out who killed his neighbour’s dog. Having worked with children on the autistic spectrum before, Haddon’s portrayal of Christopher was uncomfortable to read, mainly due to his treatment at the hands of his parents and other authority figures but also because, well, he was a bit of a dick. While being on the autistic spectrum goes a ways to making allowances for certain types of behaviours, some people are just dickheads. To be fair, Christopher’s main role model was his dad, someone who wasn’t on the spectrum and was a colossal dickhead.
Suffice to say, the novel took my expectations and smashed them to pieces. And then put them back together in a very particular, ordered manner, much like the way Don keeps his kitchen cupboards. Don Tillman was a joy to read about, his spectrum-disorder shining through unashamedly, but the discomfort I felt with Christopher was decidedly absent as Simsion recounted a number of Don’s misadventures as a geneticist and professor, and the glee I felt when I read the story of the dead fish was tangible. As a recent graduate, if one of my professors rocked up to class holding a dead fish to prove an academic point it would definitely make my week. Don’s age and experience as a character may play a part in his likeability – being a late-30s geneticist with more than 20 years on Haddon’s schoolboy Christopher certainly could have given him a lot more time to learn how not to speak to people. Don comes across as a highly intelligent, loveable doof and more to the point, he’s a character who, for once, I actually care about the ins and outs of his daily life and how he interacts with the eponymous Rosie, a welcome change from the deluge of characters present in ASOIAF and who you only particularly remember based on who they’ve had sex with or who they’ve brutally murdered.
Rosie herself was a skilful handling of a late 20s female. An everywoman heroine for the 21st Century, from her dyed auburn hair to her daddy issues and Don’s dismay at how utterly incompatible she is with him and his questionnaire for The Wife Project (the title Don has given to his quest to find a wife), her character hums with life and you could imagine conversing with her about politics or religion over a bottle of wine. She is one half of what would constitute a perfect Bechdel Principle.
Rosie and Don’s love story is both heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. From their date on Don’s balcony to his attempted “Gregory Peck” reinvention, they take you on a journey of love, compromise, and acceptance. I’ll admit, though, when Don underwent his transformation I was anxious that Simison was throwing away a novel packed with a faithful retelling of an Aspergers story for a cheap Grease style meggase. Moreover, the novel’s finale, while beautiful and tearjerking, was tied up neatly with a ribbon and every bit as routine and ordered as Don’s aforementioned kitchen cupboards. I’m only nitpicking at this stage, though, and I tore through the novel in two and a half hours, anxious for the inevitable, predictable, but still stunningly lovely finale.
A lovely book, lovely characters, and a lovely way to spend two and a half hours. 8/10