Fiction – hardcover; Michael Joseph; 329 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
I often think that voice is everything when it comes to the enjoyment of a novel, particularly if that voice is distinctive, unique, intimate and funny.
The first person narrator in Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project has one of those voices. It’s droll and original and quirky and often laugh-out-loud funny. I read this book with a mixture of delight and joy, and found it the perfect antidote to a slew of much harder hitting novels.
Offbeat search for a life partner
The Rosie Project is a lovely offbeat story about a socially inadequate man trying to find a wife. That man is Don Tillman, a 39-year-old professor of genetics at a university in Melbourne, who doesn’t seem to have much luck with women. That’s probably because he’s unconventional — in all senses of the word. He has odd fashion sense, lacks empathy with other people and doesn’t have the faintest clue about small talk or social niceties. He is the type of person that lacks any kind of “situation sense” . Everything is run to a very tight and precise schedule, right down to a minute-by-minute blow of his entire day.
This compulsive need to have everything timetabled follows through into Don’s search for a “life partner”. He devises a rather complicated 16-page multiple-choice questionnaire which he gives to prospective candidates so that he can filter out those women he thinks will be unsuitable. If you smoke, you’re out. Ditto if you are vegetarian, have no cooking skills or lack punctuality.
As Don sets out to find the ideal woman for him, his project gets sidelined by Rosie, an academic (and barmaid) with a penchant for cigarettes, laziness and lateness, who seeks his professional help in using DNA analysis to determine her biological father. A new project is set up to acquire the DNA of potential “suspects” in somewhat underhanded and dubious ways. As it evolves, the pair find themselves spending more and more time together — but can Don put aside his prejudices to accept Rosie for who she is, and not what she isn’t?
A series of funny set pieces
The novel is structured around a series of humourous set pieces designed to show Don’s wacky and unusual side, including his extraordinary ability to absorb vast quantities of information in a short space of time. For instance, Don learns an exhaustive amount of dance moves and sexual positions, he learns how to make every single cocktail in a cocktail guide, and he manages to teach himself all the rules about baseball without having ever seen a game.
Pretty much everything he does is hilarious — even if he doesn’t quite see it that way. This is what makes the book work, because the reader knows that Don is “different” you can’t help but predict the way in which ordinary people will react to his behaviour. It’s not so much that you are laughing at Don, but the people around him who get caught up in his bizarre escapades.
Of course, the entire novel is preposterous — and the way in which Don changes over time so that he becomes more and more normal probably wouldn’t happen in reality — but that is all part of the fun.
And Don’s voice, so beautifully dull, dry and monotonous, is a treat to read because it so perfectly captures his personality. I thoroughly enjoyed spending so much time in his company and can understand why other readers claim to have fallen in love with him. He might wear quick-dry clothes and cycling attire on his dates, but he is utterly charming and strangely beguiling in an odd sort of way.
The Rosie Project is published in the UK in hardcover and ebook on 11 April. It is already available in Australia, where it has received many favourable reviews, including this one by Lisa Hill at ANZLitLovers.