A review by Nalini Haynes
After all the controversy inspired by award-winning international success story The Rosie Project, by former RMIT student Graeme Simsion, I had to read and review this novel myself.
Please note: while I have engaged with issues of disability, I am far from an expert regarding autism. If I say anything here that is incorrect or offends people on the autism spectrum or their families, please advise me and I will edit my review.
Associate Professor Don Tillman substitutes for his friend Gene in delivering a lecture on autism in the opening chapter. Don’s difficulty in adjusting his schedule to prepare for this lecture, his self-conscious social interactions and his obvious empathy for ‘Aspies’ — the colloquial term Don ascribes to those on the autism spectrum additionally diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome — lead the reader to diagnose Don as on the autism spectrum. Don also comments that it’s common for adults on the autism spectrum not to be aware of their possible diagnosis.
Don is a geneticist studying the effects of alcohol on cirrhosis of the liver on alcoholic mice. Gene is an unethical psychologist whose hobbies include taking advantage of those around him.
Back to Don’s lecture on autism. Don disapproves of ‘parental rejection’ of children’s enthusiastic responses to his lecture, including the kids claiming the ‘Aspie’ moniker while successfully problem-solving, providing socially unacceptable solutions at shouty volume while standing on desks. (Dead Poets Society, anyone?)
Middle-aged Gene is trying to fuck his way around a world map: screwing women of every nation while safely situated in Melbourne with a loving wife, Claudia, at home. Although apparently Claudia initially agreed to an open relationship, Gene keeps secrets while Claudia avenges wrongs by putting chilli in Gene’s lunch. These are the two friends who counsel Don on relationships.
Don decides to try — again — to find a wife, which becomes The Wife Project. Online dating, speed dating and assorted disasters accumulate, exacerbating Don’s expectations of social failure.
Spoilers, Sweetie. Serious end-of-novel spoilers. Included only for discussion of representation of disability.
Don is clearly high-functioning, with his academic success and current position as a tenured associate professor at a prominent Melbourne university. Children attending the autism lecture were also clearly high-functioning, some engaging with Don’s genetic information while parents were perplexed. This perpetuates mythology of autism savants; genius exists and yet it is not as commonplace as appears to be implied in the Rosie Project.
In the latter half of the novel, Don starts speaking in metaphors. My understanding is that people with autism have difficulty with metaphors, which is why Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy is so popular: he’s one of the few characters in pop culture who is ‘their tribe’. When Don starts speaking in metaphors and his social interactions lose that disconnect with which he began his story, the Rosie Project decreases in authenticity.
Also in the latter half of the novel, Don starts to consciously change to win the girl. He changes his schedule, building in more flexibility. He changes his appearance and social interactions after realising he had been playing the class clown since he was eleven years old. I found this disturbing. Often homeostasis in relationships destroys relationships until one partner gives up and leaves; this is the root cause of much divorce. When someone has different brain-wiring making emotions, touch and social interactions difficult, my gut feeling is homeostasis should be more difficult to overcome, change is more difficult to achieve. It seemed to me that the hero’s journey, the need for a neat narrative arc and a happy ending, overrode the restrictions imposed by the protagonist’s implied diagnosis.
Don is the quintessential unreliable narrator, not unlike the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and yet the Rosie Project is easier to read. The Rosie Project is a contemporary comedy of manners and a romantic comedy, set in the rarified circles of Western academia in Melbourne and New York. Although I rarely laugh out loud when reading, the first half of the Rosie Project had me chuckling and laughing by turns. However, I am deeply concerned that the takeaway from the Rosie Project is that, like with much misunderstanding of chemical depression, the message is ‘Just try harder and you’ll fit in’.
The Rosie Project has won awards and been well-received world-wide. It’s obviously not for everyone as a teacher this semester said, ‘Writers don’t like his work’. Knowing this teacher, I assume it’s because there are insufficient metaphors and sensory imagery as metaphor for interiority. This is entirely appropriate considering the narrative voice. I loved the first half of the story, giving that 5 stars. The second half I’ll give 4 stars with a caveat that I think the protagonist’s alleged autism is subsumed by the needs of the narrative.
Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5 stars