THE ROSIE PROJECT, by Graeme Simsion. Simon and Schuster, 295 pp., $24.
Don Tillman, the narrator of Graeme Simsion's debut novel, "The Rosie Project," is, in his own words, "thirty-nine years old, tall, fit, and intelligent, with a relatively high status and above-average income as an associate professor. Logically, I should be attractive to a wide range of women. ... However, there is something about me that women find unappealing."
That something is what readers will identify as Asperger's syndrome -- Don is long on logic, unpracticed with emotion and challenged by social cues. In the first scene of the book, his philandering colleague, Gene, asks Don to sub for him at a lecture he's supposed to give on Asperger's. "Gene's lecture problem had arisen," Don explains in his signature deadpan tone, "because he had an opportunity to have sex with a Chilean academic who was visiting Melbourne for a conference."
Once Gene offers a solution to Don's conflict between the time of the lecture and the time Don had planned to clean his bathroom, this capable fellow gets to work preparing the lecture. "I had no previous knowledge of autism spectrum disorders, as they were outside my specialty," he explains. His specialty: genetic predisposition to cirrhosis of the liver. "Much of my working time is devoted to getting mice drunk."
Characteristically, during the talk he makes what he describes as a "minor social error" in calling on a person with a question: "The fat woman -- overweight woman -- at the back?"
He may be found wanting by the ladies, but he is adored by readers. A runaway bestseller in Australia, "The Rosie Project" was published in 40 countries this year, and there's a film on the way. Unlike Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time," which is half-serious, half-comic, or the moving young-adult novel "Mockingbird" by Kathryn Erskine, "The Rosie Project" plays Asperger's for laughs -- and mostly wins them. Some broad comic strokes in the windup -- practicing dance steps with a skeleton, say -- will probably work better in the film version.
Don knows that men with partners live longer and gain other advantages, so to kick up his process, he institutes The Wife Project, designing a 16-page survey that will rule out smokers, drinkers, astrology enthusiasts and the habitually late. Then, he meets a woman named Rosie Jarman. She is a total nonstarter by survey standards, arriving at their first date "wearing a black dress without decoration, thick-soled black boots and vast amounts of silver jewelry on her arms. Her red hair was spiky like some new species of cactus. I have heard the word stunning used to describe women, but this was the first time I had actually been stunned by one."
There ensues a series of events Don labels The Jacket Incident, The Balcony Dinner, The Great Cocktail Night and, most significantly, The Father Project. Rosie's mother died when she was 10, leaving clues but not the identity of her father. She asks Don to use his DNA know-how to help her find her real dad. This quest drives the suspense portion of the plot, which is less successful than the rom-com built around it.
"The Rosie Project" was recommended to me by a friend who read it immediately after a death in her family. It is definitely a take-your-mind-off-your-troubles kind of book, and those who would relish a few hours of sweet, silly diversion will enjoy it.