Don Tillman, hero of Graeme Simsion’s novel The Rosie Project, is a professor of genetics at an Australian university. He is also an “Aspie”—a person with Asperger’s syndrome. One of the hallmarks of Asperger’s syndrome is that certain aspects of social interaction that come naturally to most of us and that we handle without even thinking about it have to be learned and applied explicitly. They observe us, and make hypotheses, and draw conclusions, and (if so minded) try to live accordingly, so as to better fit in; and it doesn’t always work. This can be painful for the Aspie, and painful (in a different way) for those who interact with him, and often surprising, because of course Aspies look just like everyone else. I’ve watched two Asperger’s people grow up (one of them is my nephew) and I can vouch for how hard it can be.
So Don Tillman is a bit of an odd bird, and he knows it. He organizes his life logically and rationally, for maximum efficiency. He follows rules ruthlessly, especially those rules he has established for himself, and has his day scheduled down to the minute from morning until night. Still, he’s lonely; and one day has a sort of Epiphany: he can use the scientific method to find a spouse. He will determine the characteristics of his perfect companion, write up a questionnaire, and ask for candidates. This is his story.
Simsion has done a remarkable thing with this book. The book is laugh-out-loud funny, especially for those of us who know or have known Asperger’s people; but (perhaps because it is written in first person, from Don Tillman’s point of view) it never seems exploitative or unsympathetic. We are privy to Don’s thought processes, and the analyses and conjectures he makes as he navigates the tricky waters of social interaction, and truly, everything he does makes perfect sense given what he knows and understands. At the same, we who are reading the book can also see the scene from the point of view of the other characters. We can see what Don is missing, and where he goes wrong. More than that: we can often understand his reactions better than he does. The result is a poignant, funny, and delightful look at life, romance, and science.
I first heard about this book from Julie Davis; I loved it and passed it along to Jane, who devoured it; and she immediately passed it along to a bunch of people in our family.
Here’s a short passage, just to give you the flavor. Don has asked a young woman to meet him for dinner at a fancy restaurant. The restaurant has a dress code: gentlemen must wear jackets. Don has been careful to do so, but there’s a problem.
I continued toward the restaurant entrance, but the official blocked my path. “I’m sorry. Perhaps I wasn’t clear. You need to wear a jacket.”
“I’m wearing a jacket.”
“I’m afraid we require something a little more formal, sir.”
The hotel employee indicated his own jacket as an example. In defense of what followed, I submit the Oxford English Dictionary (Compact, 2nd Edition) definition of jacket: “1(a) An outer garment for the upper part of the body.”
I also note that the word jacket appears on the care instructions for my relatively new and perfectly clean Gore-Tex jacket. But it seemed his definition of jacket was limited to “conventional suit jacket.”
“We would be happy to lend you one, sir. In this style.”
“You have a supply of jackets? In every possible size?” I did not add that the need to maintain such an inventory was surely evidence of their failure to communicate the rule clearly, and that it would be more efficient to improve their wording or abandon the rule altogether. Nor did I mention that the cost of jacket purchase and cleaning must add to the price of their meals. Did their customers know that they were subsidizing a jacket warehouse?
“I wouldn’t know about that, sir,” he said. “Let me organize a jacket.”
Needless to say I was uncomfortable at the idea of being redressed in an item of public clothing of dubious cleanliness. For a few moments, I was overwhelmed by the sheer unreasonableness of the situation. I was already under stress, preparing for the second encounter with a woman who might become my life partner. And now the institution that I was paying to supply us with a meal—the service provider who should surely be doing everything possible to make me comfortable—was putting arbitrary obstacles in my way. My Gore-Tex jacket, the high-technology garment that had protected me in rain and snowstorms, was being irrationally, unfairly, and obstructively contrasted with the official’s essentially decorative woolen equivalent. I had paid $1,015 for it, including $120 extra for the customized reflective yellow.