Michael Joseph £12.99

Review: The Rosie Project, By Graeme Simsion

A rom-com with a dash of curious DNA

The debut novel of Graeme Simsion, an Australian IT consultant turned writer, The Rosie Project is a romantic comedy with sublime character precision and soppy but gratifying genre fulfilment. Don Tillman is a professor of genetics; he's also somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Despite being a smart, fit, wealthy 39-year-old, he's had little luck in love. Don hits on the idea of "The Wife Project": a strict, 16-page questionnaire to find the perfect woman by systematically eliminating non-suitable partners. ("The vegans, the sports watchers, the creationists, the smokers, the scientifically illiterate, the homeopaths …")

Into his life bursts a young woman named Rosie, who works in a bar, smokes and has daddy issues; "the world's most incompatible woman," he decides. Yet somehow Don finds himself embarking on a new project: to help find her biological father with secretive DNA testing. And he finds that life and love don't always adhere to best-laid scientific protocols.

The Rosie Project, however, follows the rules of a rom-com to the letter: the "just friends" male-female relationship; a reliance on unlikely coincidences to zip the plot along; light-bulb moments of realisation. Comic set-pieces, including a public dancing humiliation turned triumph, see Don's superhuman capacity for memorising correct procedures come into its own. You can practically see the film montage unfolding, and it's no surprise to discover that the novel started life as a screenplay.

There are downsides to this. The quirky female as saviour of a lonely male is an infuriating trope in the rom-com genre, and some readers may find the message that happiness lies in embracing irrationally and your emotions simplistic and sentimental. However, The Rosie Project is a cut above Jennifer Aniston movies for two reasons. First, Don's narration is pitch perfect; a precise, formal, geeky tone conveying his rigidly scheduled, rationally detached world-view. It's easily as impressive as in an obvious predecessor, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Second, The Rosie Project is extremely funny. The reader is in a privileged position, able to see Don's faux pas when he doesn't, but also has a huge amount of affection for the character, whose dispassionate view of illogical social norms is captured with snort-inducing deadpan accuracy. Warmly recommended.

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