Feeling wary of a novel that’s been the target of such gushy praise is natural. Publishers in at least 38 countries have snapped up the rights to The Rosie Project, which has been touted as a “publishing phenomenon,” an “international sensation” and no less than “the feel-good hit of 2013.”
Well, squelch your inner cynic: The hype is justified. Australian Graeme Simsion has written a genuinely funny novel. It’s told in the voice of a 39-year-old genetics professor named Don Tillman, who has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism that affects his social skills. (Once, while delivering a lecture, he calls on “the fat woman — overweight woman — at the back,” then expresses relief to have so quickly corrected this “minor social error.”) As a result, he has only two friends: Gene, a philandering fellow professor, and Claudia, Gene’s psychologist wife.
Encouraged by his friends and knowing that “married men are happier and live longer,” Tillman begins the Wife Project, an earnest attempt to find the proper mate. He’s “tall, fit, and intelligent,” he tells himself. “In the animal kingdom, I would succeed in reproducing.” In the real world? Not so much. He starts his search disastrously, with a questionnaire for potential dates that includes freakishly selective questions such as “Do you eat kidneys?” (The correct answer is “Occasionally.”) A singles party and a speed-dating event prove equally fruitless.
By chance and apart from the Wife Project, he meets Rosie, a woman who smokes, can’t cook, doesn’t exercise, is chronically late and declares herself a vegetarian, all of which flat-out disqualifies her, according to the Wife Project questionnaire. Yet Tillman is intrigued when he learns that Rosie is seeking the identity of her biological father, and he’s thrown by the fact that he has such fun in real life with someone who appears so inappropriate on paper.
Simsion, a former IT consultant, wrote The Rosie Project as a screenplay. He later turned it into a novel, and last year he won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. The buzz spread fast: Sony Pictures has optioned the screen rights.
Reading this novel, you can’t help casting the film in your head: Who’ll play the lovably awkward (and, the book makes clear, fit and handsome) lead character? Paul Rudd, maybe. Rosie? Jennifer Lawrence, in Silver Linings Playbook mode. Definitely.
There’s no denying that this is classic rom-com. “I had been living in the world of romantic comedy,” Tillman notes toward the happy ending, “and this was the final scene.”
The rosiest news of all is that it’s not the final scene: Simsion is writing a sequel.
Christina Ianzito reviewed this book for the Washington Post.