OK, I’m going to get it out there right at the beginning of the review: this is the best work of fiction I have read in a really long time. GOANDBUYITNOW.
Right, now that’s over…
I ummed and ahhed about this one when I looked down Penguin’s list of “Books we might send you to review if you want them.” It sounded a bit romancey: guy wants a wife, decides on a method of attracting one, hilarity ensues. But I decided to give it a go, mainly because the way he goes about it is through a questionnaire, which is something I relate to.
I busk on the street sometimes, because it supplements my income and provides me with a space to trial new songs before I perform them at gigs. When I first started busking, I anticipated that some people might be mean. I was wrong. What I didn’t anticipate was the number of men who decided that since I’m standing on the street performing, I’m essentially public property, and therefore it’s perfectly fine to come up and ask me out.
Most of the time I just say no, but sometimes people are more insistent than that (in a couple of instances, so insistent that I had to punch them. Hard.), so I devised a questionnaire. I decided that if the guy was interested enough to want to answer the questionnaire in the first place, and then answered all the questions “correctly”, then he at least deserved to get a drink out of it.
Predictably, most guys got offended and stormed off, which was sort of the desired effect. Some didn’t, though. Some filled in the questionnaire (one with answers that were basically perfect, and so I went for coffee with him). It seemed like a foolproof system. It wasn’t, which I gradually learned.
So when I read the blurb of The Rosie Project, I thought ‘Well, at least I might relate to the main character a bit.’
Make that a lot.
The storyline: Don is a professor of genetics. He lives by a strict routine and has very few friends, but is perfectly satisfied with his life. He feels like he should have a wife at some point, but finds it hard to meet women he actually likes. So he devises The Wife Project, a questionnaire designed to weed out those he wouldn’t actually get along with, and find him the perfect woman.
His friend Gene comes on board with this plan, sifting through the answers for him and suggesting alterations when the questions get too strict. Then Gene throws Don a wild card in the form of Rosie, a young feminist barmaid with dyed hair and erratic views about schedules and punctuality.
Rosie wants to find her biological father, and Don, as a geneticist, seems like the perfect candidate to help out. All well and good. But gradually Don finds himself spending more and more time on The Father Project, and less time on The Wife Project. What are his logical motivations for spending so much time with Rosie? The question puzzles him, but while he thinks about it, his life begins to change. At one point he even eats oysters instead of lobster on a Tuesday. But I don’t want to give away the whole story.
It is utterly brilliant. And I found so many relatable moments.
Rosie called back while I was delivering a lecture. Normally, I turn my phone off at such times, but I was anxious to put this problem to bed… Speaking on the phone in front of a lecture theatre full of students was awkward, especially as I was wearing a lapel microphone.
They obviously heard my side of the conversation:
‘Hi, Don, I just want to say thanks for doing this thing for me… Do you know that little coffee shop across from the Commerce Building – Barista’s? How about two p.m. tomorrow?’
I was momentarily unable to access my schedule in my brain.
‘Barista’s two p.m. tomorrow,’ I repeated.
‘Great,’ she said, ‘You’re a star.’
Her tone indicated that this was the end of her contribution to the conversation. It was my turn to use a standard platitude to reciprocate, and the obvious one was the simple reflection of ‘You’re a star’. But even I realised that made no sense. She was the beneficiary of my star-ness in the form of my genetics expertise. On reflection, I could have just said ‘Goodbye’ or ‘See you’, but I had no time for reflection. There was considerable pressure to make a timely response.
‘I like you too.’
The entire lecture theatre exploded in applause.
A female student in the front row said, ‘Smooth.’ She was smiling.
Fortunately I am accustomed to creating amusement inadvertently.
And, a bit later on:
Throughout my life I have been criticised for a perceived lack of emotion, as if this were some absolute fault. Interactions with psychiatrists and psychologists… seem to start from the premise that I should be more ‘in touch’ with my emotions. What they really mean is that I should give in to them. I am perfectly happy to detect, recognise and analyse emotions. This is a useful skill and I would like to be better at it. Occasionally an emotion can be enjoyed – the gratitude I felt for my sister who visited me even during the bad times, the primitive feeling of well-being after a glass of wine – but we need to be vigilant that emotions do not cripple us.
I diagnosed brain overload and set up a spreadsheet to analyse the situation.
THIS IS MY LIFE.
When I read some of the reviews in the PR release, and one of them compared this book to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I was skeptical to say the least. But now I’ve read it, I’d say it’s even better than Curious Incident, which is an excellent book too.
In my bedroom, I have a windowsill of books. There aren’t very many on there, but it’s devoted only to those that are so precious that I could not throw them away; those that have to move with me to every new place. The ones I’ve read and thought, Yes. This is Excellent. Graeme Simsion, you have joined this bookshelf. Or booksill, perhaps.
The Rosie Project is moving, hilarious (lying in the bath giggling hysterically, laughing more than I have in ages) and poignant. All the characters are beautifully complex, and the subplots could quite happily be stories in their own right. In fact, I found myself thinking that the book could easily have been flipped on its head: a chick-lit author could have written a novel about a scientist called Gene, his wife Claudia and their “open” marriage which Claudia regrets agreeing to, and their odd friend Don could have been a bit-part player. I’m glad it’s this way round. Don is fantastic, Rosie is awesome, Gene and Claudia are excellent friends, and YOU SHOULD READ IT NOW.
Ahem. Sorry. Bit emphatic. But you really should. Now. NOW.