The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

A comedy about a man’s search for love that breaks all the rules of logic and hygiene. Time for Don Tillman to find himself a wife.

A comedy about a man’s search for love that breaks all the rules of logic and hygiene. A light-hearted book about Don Tillman, a man with Asperger’s who decides it’s time he found himself a wife. Needless to say, he’s a geek who is clueless about relationships. What could possibly go wrong? And will he succeed? This is played for laughs and it delivers, but not everyone’s happy about the portrayal of autism. On the whole, though, an enjoyable read, as long as you don’t assume this is how every autistic person thinks or acts.

The other evening on the news, it was mentioned that approximately 10 % of people could now be diagnosed as somewhere on the autism spectrum. Not long now and it seems there will be no such thing as ‘neuro-typical’. Meanwhile, some forms of autism have now been taken off the DSM-V list of diagnoses of psychiatric disorders because not everyone who can be diagnosed experiences it as a problem. As Don Tillman says in The Rosie Project,

“Asperger’s isn’t a fault. It’s a variant. It’s potentially a major advantage. Asperger’s syndrome is associated with organisation, focus, innovative thinking and rational detachment.” (p.12)

It can cause all sorts of problems and disruptions, however. In Don’s case, it causes depression, but

“virtually all my problems could be attributed to my brain being configured differently from those of the majority of humans. All the psychiatric symptoms were of this, not of any underlying disease. Of course I was depressed: I lacked friends, sex and a social life, due to feeling incompatible with other people. My intensity and focus was misinterpreted as mania. And my concern with organisation was labelled as obsessive-compulsive disorder.” (pp.208/9).

From his family’s point of view, Don’s rigidness forces them to make all sorts of compensations to avoid causing unnecessary problems. This can cause major stresses within families. It doesn’t surprise me that Don’s mum cries at his 21st birthday party when his uncle tells too many “funny” stories about him. Being the mother of a neuro-atypical child can seriously dent your confidence as a mother, especially if their somewhat “odd” behaviour is interpreted as bad parenting. I speak from experience.

A comedy of errors

In fact, Don’s whole life is one long round of misunderstanding, misinterpretation and drawing the wrong conclusions. As a child, he assumed he would do what everyone else seemed to do: grow up, get married and have children, but as an adult he realises that this isn’t likely after all. Until his simple adherence to social rules in his friendship with the old lady Daphne changes his mind. He realises that intuition isn’t the only way to understand what people want and expect. That is when his social experiment begins: he wants to find a wife.

A question of questionnaires

Speed dating seems like the perfect non-social way to meet people, but not if you use a questionnaire (very efficient) and they know you have eliminated them after the first question.

The problem with questionnaires is that it’s also very difficult to define what it is you like, even if, like Don, you are very analytical. My husband, for example, thinks he likes tall blond women but married me, a short dark-haired woman. Likewise, he claims to hate minced beef, pasta and melted cheese but loves lasagna! People are not always in the least bit logical.

Empathy and feelings aren’t the same thing

I like the way Don (often correctly) analyses people’s motivations and ruses for trying to get him to do something. In this case, Gene suggesting he takes a prospective wife to the faculty ball. This reminds me of one of my online friend with Aspergers who often asks the most fascinating questions when trying to find out why people have behaved a certain way. Her analysis of the situation is usually spot on, but the inability to ‘feel’ people’s reactions makes her feel insecure. No more insecure, I suspect, however, than most people who check up with their friends about what they’re going to wear to a party. Note: he is perfectly able to feel his own emotions, so can be hurt by other people.

Don is painted as extremely logical. For example, he has no pictures in his apartment “Because after a while I would stop noticing them. The human brain is wired to focus on differences in its environment – so it can rapidly discern a predator. If I installed pictures or other decorative objects, I would notice them for a few days and then my brain would ignore them. If I want to see art, I go to the gallery. The paintings there are of higher quality, and the total expenditure over time is less than the purchase price of cheap posters.” He uses long words, extreme logic, scientific reasoning. Also, he remembers the exact date when he last visited the gallery. When he drives past his parents’ hometown of Shepparton, he doesn’t go out of his way to visit his parents, but does want to visit the town.

However, just as logically, Don is ready to learn from his mistakes. He does change the terms of his questionnaire in light of his experinces, though he usually frames this in terms of making different rules:

“Time has been redefined. Previous rules no longer apply. Alcohol is hereby declared mandatory in the Rosie Time Zone.”

Rosie says, “Any woman who takes that test is happy to be treated as an object. You can say that’s their choice. But, if you spent two minutes looking at how much society forces women to think of themselves as objects, you might not think so. What I want to know, do you want a woman who thinks like that? Is that the sort of wife you want?” (p.143)

“Problem Number One. My emotions were not aligned with logic.” (p.153) A problem most of us can empathise with.

This is a light-hearted book with plenty of ridiculous moments that portrays a man with Asperger’s sympathetically. It is rather jumping on the bandwagon of autism as entertainment, however. In the original Star Trek, Mr Spock acted like a sterotypical autist with his perfect logic and lack of emotion, but overreaction is often the thing that causes the most problems when dealing with autism. Autistic characters are now portrayed in mainstream programmes, but they are often portrayed somewhat as a sideshow. Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory is not defined as having autism, but that’s the way he’s presented and it’s often his awkwardness that triggers the comedy. Mind you, Sheldon is not above making the most of his peculiarities; he is also manipulative and definitely self-serving. There is also another TV show that I have seen in passing with a young ER doctor with (as far as I can tell) Asperger’s. In both cases, the level of awkwardness and the level of brilliance of the mind is much played up, though the doctor character is more sensitively portrayed. I’m not sure if all this publicity is necessarily helpful for individuals who are autistic themselves. As they are all individuals, I suppose this depends on their own beliefs and experiences.

The less stereotypical the portrayals become, the more people will be represented. This book is definitely on the ‘pop culture’ side of the coin, but it was very enjoyable. Mind you, I can’t help feeling that Don is no more awkward than the average teenage boy. His search for love is certainly a painfully amusing tale, and quite a page-turner, so I understand why this book has been so successful.

Have you read The Rosie Project? Did you enjoy it and have you read the sequel? Do tell!