The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion: a man seeks an efficient path to matrimony

The Rosie ProjectThe Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Because intelligent people need light reading too.

This book came into my hands by serendipity. I saw it lying on my wife’s side of the bed one afternoon, and idly picked it up to read the first page or two. I was drawn in right away by its opener:

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.

Good, I thought. I enjoyed the serious, Spock-like tone, and its comic application to the as yet unspecified but already capitalized Wife Problem. Where could this thing be going?

I experienced some dissonance, because the book’s cover had struck me as being chick lit: the tall skinny lettering, the whimsical cartoon bicycle. What didn’t fit was the apparent maleness of the author, Graeme Simsion. But there might be male writers of chick lit–how would I know? However, as I read the next page or two or three, I saw that the book does not conform in any way to my notions of chick lit. For one thing, the protagonist and narrator is a man–Don Tillman, associate professor of genetics at a university in Melbourne–and for another he addresses his readers as though they were his intellectual equals, that is, as though they too were people with high IQs. Nice!

So, being between novels (having just finished the U.S.A. trilogy by John Dos Passos), I decided to take Rosie for a spin. I was drawn in quickly by the fast-paced storytelling. Don Tillman, who, we have strong reason to suspect, is what my nurse sister would call somewhere “on the spectrum” of Asperger’s-autism, at age 39 has decided that he wants to find a wife. He doesn’t expect it to be easy, for, despite the fact that he possesses many or all of the characteristics that a woman might desire in a husband–he is tall, fit, good-looking, holds a prestigious and well-compensated job, keeps an immaculate apartment, and cooks delicious dinners–he lacks the most basic social skills that would enable him to find a mate, or even to make friends, of which he has only two, a husband-wife pair of fellow profs. They tolerate his rigid, intellectualized, and highly scheduled way of being, while trying to coach him in fitting in with society better.

Don doesn’t “get” emotions. He recognizes that they exist, and that they play a big part in people’s lives, and he even experiences some himself. But he finds that they invariably lead to inefficiency, errors, and wasted time. So he does his best to expunge them and neutralize their effect. The result is a robotic persona that, ever since Don was a child, has made him a figure of fun for others. In order to cope, he has learned to tolerate embarrassment and accept social disasters with good grace. If he had a sense of humor he would try to laugh at himself, but he doesn’t, not really, not yet.

One of my slight quibbles with the book is that I’m not clear at first exactly why Don wants to get married. He would like to have a sex life for a change, and maybe that’s reason enough. At age 39 a man’s thoughts might start turning that way. Anyway, Don comes up with a strategy to avert dating disasters such as he’s had in the past: he devises a detailed questionnaire for prospective women, to whittle prospects down to those with whom he might be compatible–nonsmokers and nonvegetarians, for example. With some coaching from his one male friend, the philandering psychology prof Gene, Don embarks on the Wife Project.

Perhaps predictably, Don’s strategy does not save him from disaster. One of the women he encounters early in the project is a certain Rosie, a 29-year-old bartender, who despite her good looks is an obvious reject: smoker and vegetarian. But Rosie has as problem that catches Don’s interest: her mother having died when she was little, she would like to find her birth father. And Don, a genetics prof, for reasons he can’t quite explain to himself, offers to help her.

And away we go on a wild but fun genetic chase for Rosie’s true father, with Rosie and Don by turns tolerating, enjoying, and detesting each other’s company. The story is engaging, well designed, and funny, and moves so fast that at times I wanted it to slow down; certain episodes that I thought were big and dramatic were narrated a bit hastily for me.

But Don Tillman is a captivating and complex character. Seemingly a robot in a human body, he discovers that he can change–and that he wants to, once he discovers a reason to do so. And his story is a refreshing change: a romance told from the man’s point of view. For men want love too–they just don’t know it. Certainly Don doesn’t. But if he can figure it out, there might be hope for us all.

I was tempted to give this book 5 stars. Certainly, every day I looked forward to reading it, and I laughed aloud at several points, and also cringed in vicarious humiliation. I found myself getting confused toward the end as the paternity mystery was untangled, but I think I understood it all by the last page. In all, a really good, enjoyable effort. If all books were this good I would be one happy reader.

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