This is a review of Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project. There are spoilers below! It’s a fantastic and funny read, so if you buy it from your independent bookstore or borrow it from your library, you won’t be disappointed.
When I moved to Brisbane after finishing my PhD in London, I was flat broke and needed a job. Within a few weeks, I’d found one as a research assistant at a charity that helped people with autism. It suited me well – it was part-time, which gave me days off to write, kind and friendly people worked there, I was using my brain a bit, and it didn’t cause me any stress, which also helped with the writing.
However, the only thing I knew about autism came from reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon, which wasn’t even specifically about autism or Asperger’s, but whose character processed information about the world in a unique way. Still, it was a starting point, and they employed me for my research skills. Since then my knowledge has expanded exponentially, as much of my job is about searching for and reading literature about autism, a developmental disability characterised by difficulty with social interaction and communication, and repetitive and restricted interests and behaviours.
I bring this up by way of making the point that novels are one the most accessible ways of learning about other people and the way they experience the world. This applies in particular to people with disabilities who might find it hard to communicate how they are different, not least because their world is of course normal to them or, alternatively, because the world becomes such a threatening place that it can be hard to convey. Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project is a novel that shows how a person with Asperger’s thinks and interacts, in a humorous and well-crafted way.
The novel is told in first-person from the perspective of Don Tillman, a 39 year old genetics professor. Don wants a wife, but hasn’t had any luck with dating so far. Using his strengths in logic and efficiency, he designs a sixteen-page questionnaire to find the perfect woman. On the way, he also encounters Rosie, who wants help with finding her biological father, and recruits Don to analyse biological samples that they find.
Don, as with many with autism or Asperger’s, finds it difficult to read people, so he relies upon his use of logic and his bank of knowledge:
I remembered the basic rule of asking a woman to talk about herself. Rosie had already raised the topic of dealing with difficult customers in a bar, so I asked her to elaborate. This was an excellent move. She had a number of hilarious stories, and I noted some interpersonal techniques for possible future use (64).
Usually, though, Don’s pragmatic approach to human interaction is rendered hilariously, such as in the following instance which refers to his colleague. Gene is unable to give a lecture on Asperger’s, so Don takes his place:
Gene’s lecture problems had arisen because he had an opportunity to have sex with a Chilean academic who was attending a conference in Melbourne. Gene has a project to have sex with women of as many different nationalities as possible. As a professor of psychology, he is extremely interested in human sexual attraction, which he believes is largely genetically determined (3).
Later, Don mentions the incident to Gene’s wife as a matter-of-course, and his wife retaliates by, in a lovely synchronicity, putting chillies in Gene’s sandwich. Don observes, ‘It was difficult to see how Claudia could make an error of this kind’ (75), which had me laughing again.
Simsion was careful not to mention Don’s Asperger’s until later in the book, but I knew of the diagnosis before I started to read. While this did have disadvantages, it meant I could admire Don’s strategies for learning how to communicate socially, and understand his stress when his routines were interrupted. Simsion’s delayed announcement to the reader about this aspect of Don was because, as he writes, he ‘wanted the reader to see Don as a person rather than a collection of symptoms.’
As I was prejudiced in my reading of the book by knowing that Don had Asperger’s, I conducted research (with a sample size of one), by asking my sister if she’d known about it. She replied that she hadn’t, until towards the end of the book when it was revealed, and that she’d just thought that Don was a quirky, eccentric character, and that his use of the questionnaire wasn’t much different to internet dating.
This leads inevitably to the question of labelling, which I’ve been thinking about lately. I sometimes have the sense that our society is also weighted towards extroverts, who look on introverts with disdain because they can’t communicate as breezily. However, labelling everyone who can’t communicate well as having a disorder is a way of pathologising people who are simply not big talkers and who are, furthermore, often good thinkers and observers. Why do we have to have labels, I often wonder; why can’t we just accept difference?
Also on this note, my boss referred me to this article (written at times with tongue-in-cheek) in the Sydney Morning Herald’sGood Weekend, about the overdiagnosis of autism and Asperger’s. Some seem to think it’s trendy to have the condition, without contemplating how debilitating and stressful it can be. Saying that someone has autism or Asperger’s can also be used as a get-out-of-jail-free card, in the sense that it’s used to label people who are just too lazy to use courtesy. However, many people with Asperger’s take pride in their diagnosis, in a similar way to that deaf people are proud of belonging to a Deaf community, and don’t see themselves as having a disability. For this reason, it’s of some consternation to people in the Asperger’s community that the definition will be removed in the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). For those who are interested in reading more about this change, scientist Andrew Whitehouse has written on the implications of it.
This book is a wonderful read. On top of everything, I appreciated its humour, because one of the most important things about having a disability is being able to laugh. Also, April is Autism Awareness month, and each year we fundraise and try to increase awareness about autism in the community. In the spirit of this, The Rosie Project is a fantastic way of making readers aware of people on the autism spectrum and how much they have to contribute.
Copy courtesy of the author.