Book review: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

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Graeme Simsion is a 56-year-old Australian IT consultant who began writing this story as an assignment on a screenwriting course in Melbourne.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Michael Joseph, 304pp, £12.99

He turned it into a novel in just a month and sold it to a local publisher who sent out copies in advance of the Frankfurt Book Fair last year. Publishers from all round the world snapped it up and are bringing it out in 34 countries. Though not until now published anywhere but Australia, the book has already earned more than £1 million in advances.

Will it pay back? I’d say so. The Rosie Project has a simple pitch. Its hero and narrator, Don Tillman, is a 39-year-old Aussie geneticist, tall, intelligent and fit but pretty far along the Asperger’s spectrum, obsessed with routines, without any sense of what other people are feeling and only the most rudimentary grasp of his own emotions. Don has never had a girlfriend, which he perceives as a problem. “Logically, I should be attractive to a wide range of women. In the animal kingdom, I would succeed in reproducing.”

So he launches The Wife Project. To find the right woman he devises an extensive questionnaire “a purpose-built, scientifically valid instrument incorporating current best practice to filter out the time wasters, the disorganised … the horoscope readers, the fashion obsessives, the religious fanatics, the vegans, the sports watchers, the creationists, the smokers, the scientifically illiterate, the homeopaths, leaving, ideally, the perfect partner, or, realistically, a manageable shortlist of candidates.”

So Don thinks. The Wife Project doesn’t prosper, you won’t be surprised to hear. But Don does meet twentysomething Rosie. She’s vegetarian, disorganised, irrational and a smoker, “the world’s most incompatible woman” in his view. But Rosie’s lovely, if he only could see it.

So here’s a classic romcom plot: the right one’s right there but our hero is blind to it.The pair keep meeting, though. Rosie is trying to identify her biological father, whom she has never known, since, as she bitterly puts it, her mother “went gene shopping at her medical graduation party”.

As a geneticist, Don is in the perfect position to help. The Rosie Project is a swift, amusing read, Don’s mixture of absolute directness and emotional incomprehension providing lots of laughs. He has had sex before, hasn’t he? a colleague asks. “Of course,” Don replies. “It’s just that adding a second person makes it more complicated.”

What makes this funny rather than tragic is that Don’s condition is more a literary device than a serious study of the syndrome — and as such it presents recognisable aspects of what virtually all men secretly know they could be like without women to humanise them.

So there we have it. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time crossed with a standard romcom plot. It’s odd that nobody thought of raising this hybrid before. How did Graeme Simsion do it? Is he a bit of a Don Tillman himself? You might suppose that rather than being your own specimen you would need to have a full emotional range to write a novel about a man without it. But just check out “about me” on Graeme Simsion’s personal website. He boasts about the cars he has driven, the restaurants he has eaten at, the wine he has drunk and the paranormal erotic female fiction by his wife he has edited. And he complains about the short bios he’s been getting recently: “To read them, you might think the only interesting thing I’ve done in my life is give a conference presentation dressed as a duck. I did indeed do this but it was many years ago, and I like to think it was not the thing I should be cited for.” You couldn’t make it up.