The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion

Review published on April 15, 2014. Reviewed by Kate Westrich

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

On the American public radio show This American Life, produced by WBEZ Chicago, there is an episode called Somewhere Out There (#374) where host Ira Glass talks to David Kestenbaum, a physicist turned radio reporter. In his days as a working physicist, Kestenbaum and some of his colleagues decided to “employ the power of mathematics to estimate the likelihood of finding a girlfriend. And so they start jotting down a calculation.” Targeting their preferred gender, what they thought were acceptable age differences for dating, similar education levels and being single, the number of potential partners was miniscule. Even with only those four qualifications: gender, age, education and availability.

Because science doesn’t work that way. Or is it love that doesn’t work that way?

While reading The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion I kept recalling this radio episode, repeatedly searching for it until I finally found the transcript that verified my memory. The reason is simple. The Rosie Project, which I enjoyed very much, seems like a mash-up of that segment from Somewhere Out There and the character of Sheldon from the American sitcom Big Bang Theory. True or not, it is a winning combination.

In the Rosie Project, Don Tillman, a genetics professor, is a man of precise order. He schedules his days to the minute, literally, and he constantly looks for ways to streamline daily activities. For instance, rather than waste time deciding what to make for dinner each evening, he eats the same thing every Monday, every Tuesday and so on. Further, he has his pantry shelves organized by the day of the week so his weekly Monday dinner ingredients are all together, same with Tuesday, etc. No variety but maximum efficiency.

Don decides he needs to go about the business of finding a spouse and he launches the Wife Project. This is essentially a version of online dating where his profile links out to a questionnaire he finds much more accurate than the ones online dating services provide. Sometimes he distributes the questionnaire in hard copy form at singles events. Using the questionnaire, Don plans to narrow down potential dating partners quickly and efficiently.

The results do not go as expected. Because science doesn’t work that way. Or is it love that doesn’t work that way?

The woman who Don hits it off with the best is a failure in terms of questionnaire results. Rosie is chronically late, a vegetarian, smoked, has dyed hair. Disastrous. Fortunately, Rosie and Don are able to spend time together working on another project that fits better within scientific parameters: The Rosie Project. For this, they are using deduction and genetics to discover the true identity of her father.

Simsion achieves several feats throughout this book. He paints a picture of a character that can’t well demonstrate his feelings and yet still has the reader understanding Don’s emotions. In the book it is heavily suggested that Don has Asperger syndrome, though never officially stated. This is one of the most respectful handlings of how to illustrate a person who presents somewhere on the autism spectrum I have ever seen. Simsion doesn’t say something is good or bad – he just lays out the symptoms. At one point in the story, Don gives a presentation to children with Asperger’s and their families. He explains the genetic components of the syndrome, specifying that it is no one’s fault. He then lays out the benefits of some of the traits associated with Asperger Syndrome: “organization, focus, innovative thinking and rational detachment.” By the end of the talk, children are yelling out “Aspies rule!” Don’s purpose was not to make the children and their families feel one way or the other, but to present facts without judgment – presented in a rationally detached way – but the result was sweet. Very similar to Simsion’s depiction of Don.

The quest to solve the Rosie Project is in some ways the more obvious, overarching story of The Rosie Project. But the Wife Project was much more interesting to me. It was a closer look at how science works and how love works and where the two overlap.

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