First Posted: 11/24/2014
Good food, good friends – what more do you need for a perfect Thanksgiving? How about a good book? After all, we have a long weekend ahead, and you deserve a treat. Like the perfect Thanksgiving, “The Rosie Project” is filled with good food and good friends, but unlike today’s predictable – and dare I say somewhat bland – holiday menu, Graeme Simsion’s first novel is filled with surprises and spiced with irony, laugh-out-loud comic scenes, and a deliciously different hero.
Don Tillman, a professor of genetics at an Australian university, reveals the book’s theme when he observes: “Humans often fail to see what’s close to them and obvious to others.” The irony of this truism is that, for a very long time, Don doesn’t get that he’s talking about himself. Brilliant, focused, organized to a fault, and supremely logical, Don also is an excellent cook and a skilled martial artist. However, he is, as he says, “wired differently,” and is socially inept. You’ll figure out why long before he does, but the point is, his “difference” has thus far made it impossible for him to acquire what he wants most: a mate.
To remedy this lack, Don embarks on “The Wife Project.” Because he is a scientist, Don develops a questionnaire designed to identify the perfect woman and weed out smokers, vegans, drinkers, the unbright, unhealthy, over-and underweight, and those who do not arrive precisely on time. He is aided and abetted by his only friends, Gene and Claudia Barrow. Gene heads the university’s psychology department and has a little project of his own – namely to sleep with women of as many different nationalities as possible. He sees Don’s questionnaire as a means of locating more prospects, but to give him his due, he really does care about Don.
Enter Rosie Jarman, who arrives at Don’s office with yet another project. She wants to discover the identity of her biological father. At 12, after surviving the car crash that killed her mother, Rosie learns that Phil, her mother’s husband, is actually her step-father. Phil tells Rosie that she was conceived the night of a drunken party celebrating her mother’s graduation from medical school. All of the graduates and their professors attended; as a result, there are more than 40 possible father candidates.
For all his faith in logic, Don is quick to make assumptions and leap to faulty conclusions. Thus it takes him quite some time to discover why Rosie has come to him for help. He thinks Gene sent her as a possible candidate for “The Wife Project,” but while he finds her strangely attractive and very smart, he can tell immediately that she meets none of his other criteria. For starters, she smokes, is mostly vegetarian, dresses like a punk rocker, drinks, and is perpetually late. Eventually, he learns that she is not just a flakey barmaid, but is, in fact, one of Gene’s PhD students.
Don finally agrees to help Rosie with “The Father Project,” suggesting that they surreptitiously collect DNA samples from all the potential dads. The subterfuges they resort to make for a lot of fun and suspense. They collect cheek swabs for a nonexistent study, saliva from glasses at a cocktail party, mop urine, steal cups and toothbrushes, even collect tears on a handkerchief.
These adventures are larded with a series of brilliantly comical scenes, so vividly described we can picture them perfectly. This is not surprising, since “The Rosie Project” started life as a screenplay. In one, Don has an altercation with the maître d’ of a swanky restaurant because the latter refuses to allow Don entry without a proper jacket. Don is wearing a jacket, and because he takes everything so literally, can’t understand why there’s a problem, since his own Gore-Tex jacket is of a “vastly superior tensile strength.” When a bouncer attempts to toss him out, Don uses his martial arts skills to floor the guy. He tells us: “I turned to see him; he was large and angry. In order to prevent further violence, I was forced to sit on him.” Or picture this scene: Don, a virgin, sex manual in hand, is practicing positions in his office, using a skeleton borrowed from the anatomy lab. Just then, the Dean, who dislikes him intensely, barges into his office with a potential donor to the university in tow.
Of course Don’s shenanigans with the skeleton are all about preparing himself for what he hopes will be a romantic evening with Rosie, but the two are hopelessly ill-matched, which adds plenty of conflict to their story. Yet somehow their opposite personalities add richness to their lives. Rosie’s spontaneity shakes Don’s rigidly ordered life to the core, which he finds surprisingly enjoyable. She finds his social ineptitude frustrating and strange, but his very strangeness touches her.
Will this mismatched couple find happiness? I’m not telling. But what I will tell you is that, as you read your way to the answer, you’ll be treated to huge helpings of humor flavored with moments of touching poignancy. In short, “The Rosie Project” is an easily digestible but delightful feast.