Don is a 39-year-old professor of genetics at a prestigious university. “Tall, fit and intelligent”, he’s good-looking, with an above-average income who can rustle up a fancy lobster salad on a Tuesday night so effortlessly that he can solve a genetics problem in his head simultaneously.
But for all his obvious charms, Don has never had much luck with women, or in fact, with people in general. He has only two friends; Gene, a womanising colleague whose goal it is is to have sex with a woman from every country on the map, and his long-suffering wife Claudia, a clinical psychologist. Don used to count his sister as one of his friends, but she died due to ‘gross and inexcusable medical incompetence’ a year earlier.
Don’s barrier to finding friends and love, is, we soon learn, because he finds it difficult to relate to the world around him and finds other people as baffling as they find him. We’re never told Don’s on the autism spectrum, but we’re encouraged to assume he is. The closest we come is Claudia asking, after Don has given a lecture on autism to a group of ‘aspie’ children, whether the symptoms he lists are familiar. He answers, that yes they are, citing another professor at the university as an obvious candidate.
Don, approaching 40, decides that he would like a wife. There are many obstacles in the way of his dream, not least his fastidious about his partner. His check list is extensive and he decides to formalise his needs into a questionable questionnaire where reciprocants must answer correctly to ‘do you smoke?’, ‘are you vegetarian?’ ‘are you ever late?’, or risk being struck off The Wife Project.
Out of the blue (although with some assistance from Gene) Don meets Rosie who is as chaotic as Don is controlled. She smokes, she drinks, she is often late and she seems to lack the scientific qualifications that Don demands from a future wife. But for all her incompatibility, he can’t let go of her and, using the convenient excuse of helping her track down her real father with his genetic know-how, he contrives to spend as much time with her as possible, without understanding why.
The Rosie Project is written in the first person from Don’s point of view so we have direct access to his thought processes, which are always entirely rational, but frequently fall wide of society’s expectations. The results are proper looking-like-a-nutter-on-the-tube funny, but – and there will always be a question mark about writing about people with developmental disabilities, are you laughing with them or at them? – I felt like the joke was very much on us, the reader, and those in the book who consider Don the odd one.
Don is no loser, he’s utterly charming and rather a sexy character. Women clearly find him attractive (Rosie likens him to Gregory Peck) and he’s caring in a unknowingly selfless way. He reminded me (and my friend who read it first) of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock so much that I read the whole thing visualising him (yeah, I know not a bad thing) as Don. But that comparison rather does Don a disservice; our hero is far more understanding, kind and caring than Cumberbatch’s high-functioning sociopath.
For all it’s funny moments, The Rosie Project is also hugely touching and at times very, but unhysterical, sad. But we’re never manipulated; as we see everything through Don’s eyes, every situation and character is presented unencumbered with emotions. We as the reader get to evaluate everything purely on what we see so the characters are allowed to develop through our own eyes.
The Rosie Project is a gem of a book, it’s the kind of book you read in one sitting not because you’re desperate to know the ending like a edge of your seat thriller, but because you can’t bear to be parted from Don and his view of the world. It’s as joyful, touching and as heart-warming a romantic comedy as I’ve ever read. It’s exactly the remedy you need for a dreary January.
by Suzanne Elliott