Remember how when we were growing up we were always told never to make fun of people who were less well off than ourselves, had a stigma, disability or were over-weight. This never seemed to apply on TV Sitcoms and the like, such as the Carry On movies or more recently Little Britain, which went all out to send up those with disabilities or weight issues. Then there’s the current US hit comedy the Big Bang Theory which makes fun of highly intelligent people who are on “The Spectrum”.
The term “The Spectrum” refers to the Autism Spectrum or Autistic Spectrum; which is used to diagnose a range of five conditions classed as Nuerodevelopmental Disorders, one of which includes Asperger Syndrome. People with Apergers often display high levels of intelligence, very bad social skills, nonverbal communication and restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests. Hence Savants and academics at the top of their fields are often said to be “On the Spectrum”. The 1988 Film Rainman highlighted this side of autism, although it wasn’t meant to be funny, it was amusing. If the Australians’ had made a similar movie it might have been something like this month’s book, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion.
Published in 2013 by Penguin Books, the book tells the story of Don Tillman a highly intelligent genetics professor in Melbourne. Don’s hit a bit of a mid life crisis, he’s single, has tried all the usual routes, online dating, blind dates, personal ads, chatting people up in bars – which is difficult for Don, given his limited social skills – all to no avail and with disastrous results(see the Apricot ice cream fiasco). So Don decides to take a more scientific approach to dating. He draws up a questionnaire “The Wife Project”, which again leads to hilarious results. Gene his promiscuous boss, whose own life project is to shag a female from every nation on the planet and one of only two of Don’s close friends he has (the other being Claudia, Gene’s long suffering wife) then sends a mature student called Rosie to him, resulting in a misunderstanding when Don believes Gene has put her forward for “The project”. He is roped into helping Rosie find her real dad, despite writing her off as totally unsuitable as a mate, but something begins to evolve through their close scrapes and weird escapades, including Rosie’s modicum of success in de-stigmatizing Don and making him slightly more socially adept, Don starts to realise she is the most beautiful woman he has ever met. But will his rather glaring and outlandish foibles get in the way of true love?
Hold on to your hats and don’t blink. Why? Because this is the funniest book I’ve read this year and if not, then it must share the mantle with The Collected Works of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (See previous review). But where that was a heart tugging, sentimental tale of star crossed lovers with the innocent humour of a small child thrown in for good luck, The Rosie Project is a straight out of the blocks, side splitting laughter fest. From the first page to the three hundred and twenty seventh, Professor Don Tillman will have you eating out of his hand and almost cracking a rib with the laughter. I’ve often said the that you know you’re reading a great funny book when your giggling and failed attempts to control hysterics in public cause other commuters on a train to give you funny looks, this book left me in this situation on a number of occasions.
Whether it’s the descriptions of the previous dating experiences, his idiosyncrasies such as having his meals, alcohol consumption and every hour of his day planned, judging everyone he meets by their BMI, his and Rosie’s first date when Don gets embroiled in a fight over a jacket and single handedly immobilizes two bouncers, or that he memorises the recipe for almost every cocktail ever made in 48 hours so that he and Rosie can pass themselves off as waiters to collect DNA for “The Father Project”, you will never again meet a person like Don Tillman and the weird and wonderful characters in his life.
Rosie is no wilting wall flower, while the creators of The Big Bang Theory have tried to saddle the male cast with equally straight laced high achievers; Rosie is no regular girl next door. She works in a gay bar and dresses like a biker, while studying psychology. At first you’d think these two are chalk and cheese, but then you realise they are just right, who else is going to be able re-wire the oddly wired Professor Tillman, but a savvy street-wise ‘Sheila’.
As for the other characters, Gene is straight out of the British sitcoms of the seventies, bed hopping his way through the UN, while marking his conquest with a flag on a map in his office. It reminded me of Adrian Mole and how he measured the development of his manhood and kept track of it on a chart in his bedroom supposedly tracing rainfall in the Norwegian forests. There’s the Dean who realises Don is special, but while trying to accommodate him has to keep the University running smoothly round Don – which isn’t easy.
This is Australian author Graeme Simsion’s first work of fiction, in another life he was an IT consultant who wrote a book in 1994 on Data Modelling, which is now in its fourth edition. As I started reading this book his second work of fiction The Rosie Effect, was in the bookshops.
The book its self started life as a screen play and as Graeme says himself at the back of the book, it only became a novel first because “..It’s cheaper to get a book published then raise money for a film”.
Here in lies one of its only flaws, it’s not Australian, nowhere in the book do you get any feeling that it’s Australian, the speech and dialect doesn’t come out in any of the characters. Yes the characters mention Australian places and street names, but like any script it’s just words on a page until an actor brings a character to the part. This is the second Australian book I’ve read in the past year and a half after Murray Bail’s “Eucalyptus”, which oozed Aussie charm and character from every pore and you could literally taste the hot dry barren outback. As a result this comes across like a RomCom film script, something ideally suited to Hugh Grant, Ricky Gervais or Steve Carrell, but a damn good one at that.
This was a sentiment echoed by the book group at our last meeting when we gathered to discuss it, overall they loved the book, a few of us got through the book so quickly we actually went straight on to the sequel “The Rosie Effect”, but like most sequels, it tires quickly and only just manages to keep you to the very end with its modicum of new material. Whereas The Rosie Project is a great piece of original work, the sequel feels very much like a rehash of most American sitcoms, as the story moves to the States.
So, with the Christmas season fast approaching and if you find yourself looking for away to quietly digest the third day of turkey salad sambo’s or pass the time on a long journey home, pop into the nearest bookshop and snap up a copy or download it and laugh all the way to the New Year.