A Hit and Miss Project: A Review of Graeme Simsion's novel The Rosie Project
Don Tillman is an Associate Professor of Genetics with (probably) Asperger’s Syndrome who has decided that, as he is nearing 40, he will solve “the wife problem” (ie. not being married) by creating a questionnaire that will ascertain, for him, the perfect wife and then marry her. That is until he meets Rosie, a grad student working part-time in a gay bar who’s looking for her biological father, and slowly Don’s “Wife Project” becomes “The Rosie Project” as he realises he’s falling in love with her.
I say that Don probably has Aspergers because it’s never explicitly stated but as he narrates the book in the first person, the reader is immediately aware that he sees the world differently than the rest of us. It’s kind of like having Sheldon Cooper from “The Big Bang Theory” talking to you - Don is a genius with no social skills who’s unable to read facial expressions and has a highly regimented lifestyle and peculiar way of speaking. Couple that with the opening scene where he gives a talk on Aspergers and it’s highly suggested that he has it. Not knowing anyone with Aspergers, I can’t tell whether he sounds convincingly like someone with it but what little I know of the condition suggests that his personality is unlikely to change as dramatically as Don’s does throughout the book. It’s almost like his meeting Rosie reverses the condition. I mean, he’s unable to feel love - but he can? He’s unable to read facial expressions or understand social conventions - but then he can?
Nevertheless I thought the first 200 pages of the book were charming. Don is a likeable guy whose eccentric lifestyle makes a change of pace to the usual rom-com formula and the different angle it gives to the genre made me interested in it even though romantic comedies aren’t usually my thing. There were also some excellent scenes that stuck out memorably like Don and Rosie’s first date, from using aikido on the waiters to altering time and having dinner on a whiteboard (not as surreal as it sounds but nice touches anyway), and Don and Rosie’s moonlighting as cocktail waiters and Don using his remarkable memory (eidetic?) to take complex drink orders for dozens of people at a time. I read the first two-thirds of the book in a couple days, smiling a lot throughout. And then I got to the final third which took me over a week and ruined the book for me.
The first 200 pages had been unique to the rom-com genre and felt highly original which is why I responded so well to it - it wasn’t going over the same ground countless other stories had gone over before. The final third is all about convention and it opens with a scene in New York. The story is set in Australia but because Don and Rosie are hell bent on finding Rosie’s biological father, their search takes them to two possible fathers in NY. This 50 page section felt completely contrived and could’ve been cut from the book entirely.
This book was originally a screenplay and these scenes felt very cinematic and included so that film backers would have recognisable locations for their film to make it easier to sell, rather than serving the story. Yes, the finding Rosie’s real dad storyline is in play but if you took those two people away from NY and cut it entirely, the book would’ve been snappier. As such it feels really contrived and dull, like the scene in the movie where the two romantic leads get to do a kind of montage sequence of things. It also constantly references other romantic comedy movies the entire time too, adding to the feeling that this is a homage to the genre and included because that’s what’s expected when you do something like this.
Then the final 70 or so pages are about Don winning Rosie back and it’s done in such a conventionally rom-com way that I totally lost interest. Worse, Don’s character didn’t seem consistent in this part either (see the criticisms in the Aspergers section above).
I’ve used the label “romantic-comedy” throughout because that’s what the marketing says it is but it’s not. It’s romantic, sure, but it’s not funny. I didn’t laugh once and didn’t think Don’s numerous social faux pas to be particularly funny either. Worse still are the scenes which are clumsily designed to be funny and feel very forced, like when Don is learning sexual positions from a book and uses a skeleton (he’s at the university for this scene so it’s not a Dahmer moment or anything) and the Dean walks in on him. It feels like the kind of scene in a sitcom where the canned laughter goes on and on as the camera switches from Don’s face to the Dean’s and back again while the audience begins to clap and laugh at the same time. It might as well be labelled “funny scene”. And it’s not.
Despite my criticisms, I was quite happy to give this book 3 stars - until I read the end. Now I know the ending shouldn’t have more importance over any other aspect of the story, whatever the genre, but the ending to this book is especially bad. So Rosie, at the very start when she’s introduced to Don, tells him about her dad Phil, a man who raised her alone after her mum died when Rosie was 12, who’s a person whom she doesn’t particularly get along with (largely because of a minor quibble which she’s unreasonably held against him for her entire life) - but no more so than any other person who doesn’t get along with their mum or dad for whatever reason. Except she’s convinced herself he can’t possibly be her real dad and that her real dad must be out there somewhere. This is basically the motivation for everything Don and Rosie do in this entire book and right off, I thought “I bet it turns out Phil IS her real dad after all”. Well... I won’t give it away but you can kind of guess what happens in the end. And I really, really hated that. Don all but says what I was feeling in the second-to-final sentence of the book and I immediately dropped the book down another star.
This book definitely has some good moments and Don is a memorable and oftentimes delightful character, but the final third of the book really frustrated me. If the book had been more tightly edited with the NY sequence thrown out and had had a less predictable ending, I would be enthusiastically recommending this novel. As it is, it is a flawed debut novel that’s well written but severely lacking in crucial parts of the story reducing it from a charmingly quirky romance story to yet another rom-com with no surprises and a sloppily rushed final act. Graeme Simsion can write and he might one day write a brilliant novel but sadly “The Rosie Project” is not that book.