Some books need to be read at just the right time, sometimes whim chooses its moment and others it feels like fate has stepped in slightly. I have been meaning to read Graeme Simsion’s debut novel The Rosie Project for ages and ages, since it came out in fact and had lots of glowing reviews from its home turf of Australia, indeed even being featured on The First Tuesday Book Club. Yet for some reason I was never quite in the right mood… and then Adam at my book club chose it and so it seemed fate had intervened. This I should add was back at the end of February but I thought I would hold off reviewing it until Kim of Reading Matters (who shared her shelves with us all yesterday) delightful ANZ Literature Month which runs throughout May.
Professor Don Tillman is a man who is going to get married, to who, well he doesn’t quite know yet. What he does know is less who she might be but much more who he doesn’t want her to be. Don has actually gone the extra mile and designed a questionnaire to find his ideal partner which he calls The Wife Project. This he feels will be a winner, yet the options for a possible wife don’t seem to be very forthcoming. Occasionally he does get a first date, alas there always tends to be some slight issue that throws Don off kilter and rather off his date. Don, we soon discover, is very particular character from liking to spend exactly 94 minutes cleaning the bathroom to being very sure that anyone and everyone should know the difference between an apricot sorbet and a peach one.
Cycling home, I reflected on the dinner. It had been a grossly inefficient method of selection, but the questionnaire had been of significant value. Without it, and the questions it prompted, I would undoubtedly have attempted a second date with Olivia, who was an extremely interesting and nice person. Perhaps we would have gone on a third date and a fourth and fifth date, then one day, when all the desserts at the restaurant had contained egg, we would have crossed the road to the ice-cream parlour, and discovered they had no egg-free pistachio. It was better to find out before we made an investment in the relationship.
However things change slightly when Don’s friend Gene, a man who is currently doing his own project on the differences between sexual intercourse with women from every country, a project we are never sure he has been fully honest with his wife about, steps in. He sends Rosie in Don’s direction, she is almost everything that Don wouldn’t want yet she needs some genetic help in finding her real father (another project) which slightly begrudgingly Don agrees to, leading him on a journey of detective discovery and one of self-discovery too.
I will admit that it does all sound a bit cute and schmaltzy, and at times it often is. It all sounds rather predictable and you can probably guess what is going to happen, even the twists and turns that come along, with all the characters and the genetic hunt (though with the latter I was rather wrong footed) yet even a big old cynic like me found himself enjoying it rather a lot as I was reading on.
The main reason for that is Don himself. Initially I didn’t think I was going to get on with the narration because it is (and this is a good thing but it could put some people off) very unique. Don is a professor in genetics which has rather an irony as, we assume as it is never made official, he has some form of Asperger’s Syndrome which is one of the things that he himself deals with but cannot spot in his own, very precise, behaviour. This makes his narration initially seem very matter of fact, quite distant and sometimes rather cold. As we get to know him though we see it as just a quirk in his personality which warms us to him and we often find ourselves laughing at the honest way in which he will view a situation or person. Simsion does something very clever here as we never laugh AT Don, we just laugh at the way his thinking highlights some of the ridiculous ways in which we behave as people. It’s a difficult balance to create without making Don the joke of the book, Simsion does it deftly.
Then she interrupted my thoughts. ‘Anyhow, I’ve got a genetics question.’
‘Proceed,’ I said. I was back in the world I knew.
‘Someone told me you can tell if a person’s monogamous by the size of their testicles.’
The sexual aspects of biology are regularly in the popular press, so this was not as stupid a statement as it might appear, although it embodied a typical misconception. It occurred to me that it might be some sort of code for a sexual advance, but I decided to play it safe and respond to the question literally.
‘Ridiculous,’ I said.
Rosie seemed very pleased with my answer.
‘You’re a star,’ she said. ‘I’ve just won a bet.’
I have to admit as the book went on I did have a few wobbles with it. My first question was why the book had to go to New York, which isn’t a spoiler as I haven’t told you why? It seemed a bit unnecessary and was the first time that I felt like it was a screenplay which had been turned into a book to then make a film, which is apparently how the book came to fruition. It had that slight ‘must appeal to Hollywood and the American market’ rather than actually being needed for the story I felt. The second thing was that Don starts to change, again I won’t say why or in what way, yet this too didn’t feel quite right, the whole point of the book to me (and what makes it so quirky and original in the genre it is in) was about how Don was different and how we should celebrate it, I couldn’t quite decide if in the end that was the case.
Either way, I enjoyed The Rosie Project. It made me think about how we perceive and judge people in a nice easy way – if that sounds patronising I don’t mean it to. Sometimes we need books you don’t have to think too much about (not in a snobby way) you just simply read them for the enjoyment and, in this case, the giggles (I laughed out loud at a scene involving a full sized modern skeleton) that they provide along the way, being entertained as you go.