By Clover Carroll
Inspired by the memorable Blizzard of 2016, I had planned to write about the most widely known and loved snow poem, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost, which never fails to pop into my head when I have the good fortune to walk in falling snow. But I couldn’t focus on that topic this weekend, because I had just arrived at the climactic final 50 pages of an impossible-to-put-down rom-com: The Rosie Project (2013), a first novel by Australian IT consultant Graeme Simsion.
Rational meets Emotional in this hilarious love story that fans of The Big Bang Theory will appreciate. The basic premise of a socially maladjusted savant blundering through a romance with a fiery, spontaneous—and fortunately for him, highly sensitive—young woman results in both laugh-out-loud comedy and tear-inducing near misses. This book is so irrepressibly joyful that it convinced me, like its protagonist, to throw rules to the wind, and write instead about a nearly perfect Valentine’s Day confection.
After Don Tillman, a brilliant, robotic, borderline Asperger’s-affected genetics professor meets Rosie Jarman, a free spirited psychology graduate student, he can’t get her out of his mind. Having just embarked on the Wife Project—in which he sets out to find, through evidence-based practice, the perfect life partner with an extensive compatibility questionnaire featuring questions like, “Do you eat kidneys?” and ”Would you arrive at an appointment a) on time, b) a little late, or c) a little early?”—Don encounters Rosie, who appears to him (though he can never bring himself to tell her) as “the most beautiful woman in the world.”
Mistakenly believing she has applied to the project, Don asks her to dinner at a fancy restaurant. This results in the “Jacket Incident,” in which Don wrestles the maître d’ to the floor for refusing to accept his expensive Gore-Tex jacket as acceptable dining attire (soon to be followed by the Apricot Ice Cream Incident, the Cellar Incident, and others—Don’s means of classifying embarrassing memories). Thus begins a friendship that throws Don’s here-to-fore orderly life into chaos. When Rosie calls in the middle of a lecture to set up a coffee date and Don’s students break into applause, Don admits, “fortunately I am accustomed to creating amusement inadvertently.”
After discovering that Rosie wishes to learn the identity of her biological father, Don offers to help her by means of DNA testing in the university lab. The Father Project, requiring a series of surreptitious DNA swabs, takes the pair on a series of madcap adventures that bring Don so much unexpected pleasure that he begins to question his firmly held belief that he is incapable of romantic love. Committed to self-improvement and convinced one can master anything through discipline and application, he learns cocktail mixology, ballroom dancing, and sexual positions from books and practices with a skeleton from the university’s anatomy department.
As a series of actual applicants to the Wife Project fail to measure up, Don is faced with the logic-defying realization that all he really wants to do is see Rosie again. His strong attraction to a clearly “unsuitable” mate who smokes, doesn’t eat meat, and is always late defies all rational explanation. As one of Don’s friends observes, “Humans often fail to see what is close to them and obvious to others.” Must he throw out his to-the-minute scheduling and Standardized Meal System to win her? And can she see past his many idiosyncrasies, social faux pas, and maddening denials of his true feelings to accept him?
Despite this overall mood of wacky improbability, the events seem true-to-life and Simsion creates a world that is fun to inhabit. Don is so likeable, so generous, and so earnest, and his unlikely affection for Rosie so sweet, that the question of whether these two opposites can ever make a relationship work keeps us reading. Sharp, witty dialogue combines with slapstick comedy and consistently unpredictable outcomes to create a charming, sophisticated page-turner. As the Wife and Father Projects morph into the Don Project, in which he tries to transform himself into Gregory Peck (whom Rosie views as the sexiest man alive), and ultimately the Rosie Project, in which he finally learns to experience empathy, this “sparkling entertainment” (NPR) will warm the coldest heart.
The message? Keep your heart open to change and remember that, where love is concerned, nothing is impossible. This novel offers the underlying reassurance that even the quirkiest souls can find true love. Literary fiction? No. Future classic? I doubt it. Upcoming film, along the lines of When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail? For sure. Delightful, refreshing, and a pure joy to read? You betcha.