The Rosie Project has been a publishing phenomenon, melting the hearts of readers everywhere with its unconventional love story. Benison O’Reilly, the co-author of The Australian Autism Handbook, casts an informed eye over the bestseller from Graeme Simsion.
The Rosie Project — a debut novel sold to over 30 countries and welcomed with seemingly universal glowing reviews. We could hardly forgive its author, Graeme Simsion, if not for the fact he’s in his 50s and has written such a beguiling book.
For the unenlightened, The Rosie Project tells the story of Don Tillman, a 39-year old professor of genetics, who’s been less than successful in love. Tired of leaving things to chance, he embarks on The Wife Project, designing a 16-page ‘best practice’ questionnaire to help him find the perfect mate. Into his life enters Rosie Jarman. She’s a thoroughly unsuitable candidate for The Wife Project, but is on a quest to find her biological father and Don, with his knowledge of genetics, is perfectly equipped to help. We know that Don and Rosie will end up together, although predictably their romance faces several obstacles along the way.
What makes their romance different is that Don has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism.
Novels based around characters with Asperger’s are hardly new; Mark Haddon’s award-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is the best known example. But a romance where the central character has Asperger’s — well, that’s more of a leap.
For me the interest was personal; my youngest son is on the autism spectrum. Could Simsion produce a convincing portrait of Don, cast him as the romantic hero, yet still capture his Aspergian essence? The answer, it turns out, is yes.
Don’s quirks are a major source of humour in the book, particularly the legendary ability of folks on the spectrum to ‘call a spade a spade’. Somehow, however, we’re never laughing at Don, probably because the book is written in the first-person. Once we start seeing the world through Don’s eyes it’s almost impossible not get drawn into his particular brand of logic.
When an opportunity arises for Don to have sex with Rosie he approaches the challenge in a typically systematic way. He procures a book about sexual positions and starts practising in his office, with help of a skeleton on loan from the Anatomy Department. This encounter of Don’s with best friend Gene was one of many laugh-out-loud moments:
‘So why the stress?’ said Gene. ‘You have had sex before?’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘My doctor is strongly in favour.’
‘Frontiers of medical science,’ said Gene.
He was probably making a joke. I think the value of regular sex has been known for some time.
I explained further. ‘It’s just that adding a second person makes it more complicated.’
Yet, two-thirds into the book I became anxious. Firstly that, for the sake of the comedy, Simsion might choose to sanitise the reality of Asperger’s, to gloss over the very real challenges that individuals on the spectrum have to face. But on that count he didn’t disappoint. He alluded, realistically, to darker time in Don’s life, treatment for a mental health condition in his early twenties.
Then, near the end, when Don bought some new clothes and refined his social skills, I worried that he was somehow going to lose his Aspie-ness. Relax! It turned out Don was just playing a part to win over Rosie — he remained at heart the same old Don. Again, this is accurate. In maturity many individuals with high-functioning autism learn to fake it. They observe and imitate us ‘neurotypicals’ because it makes it easier to fit in, not because our behaviour actually makes much sense.
Rosie falls in love with Don because he offers stability, fidelity and kindness, and (after the makeover) a passing resemblance to Gregory Peck. When it comes to finding a mate you could definitely do worse.
But then I suppose I’m biased.
Benison O’Reilly is the co-author of The Australian Autism Handbook. A new edition of the bestselling Handbook was released this month. You can follow her on twitter here.