I initially liked this novel, written from the point of view of a man who shows quite a few symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome. He is precise, pedantic, unsocial, uncommunicative, excessively analytical and non-empathetic. He likes reaching decisions through logical reasoning and making lists, and likes to dissect his experiences as if he were looking at himself through a microscope. He decides to get a wife, and sets up a project to find a partner by running applicants through a checklist that includes DNA screening. Then he gets involved with a woman called Rosie who, in all respects, does not meet the criteria he has set, but who interests him nevertheless.
I found it amusing in places, well put together, with the voice of Don Tillman, the lead character, carefully developed and consistent. In depicting this character, Simsion got it right: Asperger Syndrome (AS, Asperger’s) is an Autism spectrum disorder that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests. It differs from other autism spectrum disorders by its relative preservation of linguistic and cognitive development.
But while this novel has a happy-ever-after ending, the point is that Asperger’s is a disorder, one that is difficult to identify and treat, with distressing symptoms both for the sufferer and the people around them. An inability to connect emotionally with others means that Asperger’s sufferers, like many people with mental problems, are not nice to have around.
Behavioural problems may include anxiety or explosive emotion, obsessive interests, repetitive routines, major depressive disorder, poor sensory integration and motor coordination, inability to have conversational discourse, self-injury, aggression, noncompliance, etc. All in all, this is nothing to make light of. Yet, this is what Simsion does, to great acclaim. He wrote “The Rosie Project” as a screenplay before turning it into his debut novel. The screenplay won the Australian Writers Guild Inscription Award for Best Romantic Comedy Script in 2010 and then won the 2012 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Best Unpublished Manuscript. It has been a best seller on Amazon since then, winning Amazon Best Book of the Month in October 2013.
Despite the plaudits, I found the resolution trite, too easy and overly romantic. Like in a rom-com movie (as Simsion perhaps intended) Don realizes belatedly that he loves Rosie and rushes into a crowded place to loudly declare his love. He says, echoing the suspicions of the reader;
“I had been living in the world of romantic comedy and this was the final scene. But it was real.”
Subsequently, all the problems associated with his Asperger’s disappear, are wiped away by romantic love, and he realizes his phobias and ticks were just perceptions and defense mechanisms that can be fixed by improving his social skills.
“In reality what was important to me was to be able to make a new start with my new skills, new approach and new partner, without being held back by others’ perceptions of me – perceptions that I had not only deserved but encouraged.” (p. 318)
Steve Martin, the actor, wrote the very well received, subtle and poignant “The pleasure of my company”, also about a man with Asperger’s syndrome who develops a relationship with a woman (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2003). Unlike Simsion, Martin does not depict the main character as suddenly being able to love someone and fitting in socially. Rather, Daniel learns to be open to emotions and relationships while still staying himself.
“…I understood that as much as I had resisted the outside, as much as I had constricted my life, as much as I had closed and narrowed the channel into me, there were still many takers for the quiet heart.” (p.163)
These days AS has become the “most acceptable” mental disorder – something like a cute, non-threatening set of characteristics of nerds and boffins, popularised on TV by characters in “The Big Bang Theory”. Some autistic people (who call themselves “Aspies”) and researchers have begun advocating a shift in perception of autism spectrum disorders as complex syndromes rather than a disease, and a different cognitive style, not a disorder or a disability.
But, the positive outlook notwithstanding, as the people in the British reality series “The Undateables” (UK, Channel 4) prove, dating for “normal” people is tricky enough. For people who are different in any way, it becomes almost impossible.
A better treatment of the subject
In “Loving Mr. Spock: Understanding a Lover with Asperger’s Syndrome” (Future Horizons, 2004), author Barbara Jacobs gives a brutally honest, clinical explanation of the difficulties of an intimate relationship with a person with Asperger’s. It is not pretty, it is not simple and the problems do not go away. In fact, it doesn’t look much like “The Rosie Project” at all.
Graeme C. Simsion is a New Zealand-born Australian author, screen-writer, playwright and data modeller. Prior to writing fiction he was an information systems consultant and wrote two books and several papers about data-modelling. He established a consulting business in 1982 and sold it in 1999. At that time Simsion Bowles and Associates had over seventy staff. He co-founded a wine distribution business, Pinot Now, with Steven Naughton. Read more on Wikipedia…
Visit Graeme Simsion’s personal website, which contains “details of writing projects, films, and other personal projects, and occasionally blog on subjects that I hope will be interesting to most of the people I know – in writing, film-making, data management, consulting and life in general.”