Early on in “The Rosie Project,” 19 children punch the air shouting “Aspies rule!” It's a first clue that Graeme Simsion's sweetly disarming debut novel will change the way you think about Asperger's syndrome.
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"The Rosie Project" could just as easily have been called "The Don Tillman Project" because Don's first-person narration drives this story about a lonely man's quest for a suitable wife. Already a best-seller in the U.K. and Australia (where Simsion lives), by year's end it will have been published in nearly 40 countries. Sony has optioned the film rights.
Don, a most engaging and delightful character, is a genetics professor at a Melbourne university. Brilliant, athletic and handsome, he follows a rigid schedule ruled by logic. He's lock-stepped into a timetable that allows him 94 minutes a week to clean his bathroom, and a "Standardized Meal System" that dictates what foods he eats on what nights and how long it takes to prepare them.
Living life according to unbendable rules written on whiteboards hasn't helped Don, 39, find a woman to love him. He's "tall, fit, and intelligent, with a relatively high status and above-average income," but for some reason never makes it past the first date. He may look like a young Gregory Peck, but he knows "there is something about me that women find unappealing."
Not one to give up, Don tosses Internet dating sites, speed dating and matchmaker-designed dinner parties into the dustbin of ineffective partner-seeking methods in favor of his very own "Wife Project."
If you haven't noticed by now, Don is not your average guy. Like Christopher Boone, the teenaged narrator at the center of Mark Haddon's provocative "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," there's a reason Don doesn't feel comfortable in the world most humans occupy. And Simsion, like Haddon, offers a sure-footed exploration into the life and mind of a person who fits somewhere on the autism spectrum but doesn't seem to know it.
It never occurs to Don that his inability to maintain eye contact, his unfiltered and often offensive comments and his aversion to human touch have anything to do with his relationship problems. Asperger's syndrome is referenced in the novel — Don even gives a lecture entitled "Genetic Precursors to Autism Spectrum Disorders" — but Simsion never refers to Don as having it. By not labeling Don, Simsion allows us to laugh at some of his socially inappropriate behavior even as we sympathize with his challenges.
"The Rosie Project" fits quite comfortably into the romantic comedy genre, and its inspiration, to some extent, comes from the rom-com movies the socially awkward Don studies for clues on how other men woo women. Because of the way he's wired, he doesn't quite get the emotions at work in films like "When Harry Met Sally" and "The Bridges of Madison County." In fact, he feels nothing. "I had not for one moment felt engaged in the love between the protagonists. I cried no tears for Meg Ryan or Meryl Streep or Deborah Kerr or Vivien Leigh or Julia Roberts."
Don may be wired differently, but it doesn't mean he doesn't have wants and needs. He's sure he can find a solution to his "Wife Problem" by designing a 16-page questionnaire that will weed out incompatible women and zero in on his perfect mate. He views it objectively as "A purpose-built, scientifically valid instrument incorporating current best practice to filter out time wasters, the disorganized" and other unacceptable women, including smokers, creationists, vegans and the fashion obsessed.
Enter the very unsuitable Rosie Jarman, who scores miserably on the questionnaire but nevertheless dances into his life. She can't cook, doesn't eat meat, dyes her hair and is never on time. She may be stunning to look at, but Don sees her as highly incompatible.
Don crosses her off his dream-girl list but can't stop himself from helping the free-spirited Rosie with her "Father Project." She wants to find her biological dad, the man whose identity Rosie's now deceased mom kept secret.
And as things usually happen in romantic comedies on screen and in books, the story reverts to screwball high jinks — Don uses underhanded methods to collect DNA samples from dozens of men who could be Rosie's father — and plenty of socially awkward situations in which Rosie comes to the rescue.
Soon, Don's living in the "Rosie Time Zone," where his ruled-by-logic life begins to come undone. As his regimental existence dissolves, Simsion rolls out a brilliant and sensitive portrayal of Don's impossible struggle to be like everyone else. He wants to be the man he thinks Rosie wants him to be, not realizing that she's falling in love with the man he already is.
Filled with humor and plenty of heart, "The Rosie Project" is a delightful reminder that all of us, no matter how we're wired, just want to fit in.
Carol Memmott has reviewed for USA Today and People.
"The Rosie Project"
By Graeme Simsion, Simon & Schuster, 304 pages, $24