Film rights to The Rosie Project — Australian Graeme Simsion’s witty 2013 best-seller about a clueless professor searching for a wife — were snapped up by Sony Pictures even before the book’s U.S. publication. For his encore, The Rosie Effect, Simsion could easily have lapsed into movie-sequel mode and dished up flavorless seconds. Instead, he has written another romantic comedy that’s just as smart, funny and heartwarming as the original.
The Rosie Project was narrated by a socially awkward geneticist named Don Tillman, who fell in love with Rosie Jarman while helping her locate her biological father. In The Rosie Effect, Don and Rosie are married and living in New York, where he’s a professor and she’s a medical student.
When Rosie announces she’s pregnant, Don panics — not that it takes much to disrupt his highly structured world. The book opens with the line, “Orange juice was not scheduled for Fridays.” Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, Don is discomfited by unpredictable and emotional situations, and pregnancy and parenthood have been known to create a few. To cope, he pivots into hyper-efficient mode and launches what he calls The Baby Project. This involves creating a Standardized Meal System with optimum levels of gestational nutrition for his wife, custom-designing the world’s safest stroller (with baby-size helmet), and basically driving Rosie nuts.
Don’s off-target attempts to play the role of supportive father lead Rosie to question his commitment to their child, whom he has taken to calling B.U.D. (Baby Under Development). His pals aren’t much help in the fatherhood-prep department, either: Don’s philandering best friend suggests he “watch some kids” to understand how they operate, touching off The Playground Incident. (Suffice it to say that a lone man intently observing children at play is likely to attract police attention.) In another questionable stab at understanding babies, he helps birth a calf.
Alas, none of these hijinks persuade Rosie that Don is fit to be a father, inspiring him to more desperate measures to salvage his bond with “the world’s most perfect woman.”
As a reader, we cheer for this well-meaning misfit. Yes, Don is better at interpreting statistics than human behavior, but he has a big heart and a frank, endearing way of looking at the world. At one point, when Don displays his encyclopedic knowledge of cocktail recipes, a woman compares him to Rain Man, the autistic savant in the 1988 movie. Don sees the logical flaw in her thinking: “A society of Rain Men would be dysfunctional. A society of Don Tillmans would be efficient, safe and pleasant for all of us.”
Awash in spreadsheets, rigidly scheduled “body-maintenance tasks” and social gaffes galore, a society of Don Tillmans would actually be unbearable. But a society with no Don Tillmans would be missing something special.
Christina Ianzito reviewed this book for The Washington Post.