The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion, is a delightful romp with the endearingly quirky fictional professor of genetics, Don Tillman. At the age of 39 and never having been on a second date, Don sets out with a 16-page questionnaire to find the perfect wife. Perfect for him, that is. He is blissfully unaware that his criteria eliminate just about every woman he’s ever likely to meet.
Although it is never stated that Don has Asperger’s, he quite clearly has. He may have little insight into the thoughts and feelings of others, let alone the minefield of social interaction, but he is acutely aware that his brain is wired differently.
The lack of a label works brilliantly by keeping the focus on Don who comes across as a real character, not a list of odd behaviours. For me, The Rosie Project isn’t about someone with Asperger’s; rather, it is about acceptance and is the story of someone who doesn’t quite fit in and his search for a relationship.
I had the pleasure of hearing Graeme Simision talk about The Rosie Project in Wellington last month. He said that he didn’t research Asperger’s and didn’t set out to invent an ‘Asperger’s’ character. This got me thinking about dementia and how people with dementia are portrayed in fiction and it seemed to me that concentrating on the character, rather than the condition, as Simsion did with Asperger’s, is the way to go.
Graeme Simsion is such an engaging speaker and his reading from the book was so entertaining that I immediately rushed off to buy the book. To my surprise, The Rosie Project has a minor character with Alzheimer’s. Daphne is an elderly neighbour of Don’s and her life revolves around visiting her husband who is in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s. Don befriends Daphne and tells her a great deal about genetics as he accompanies her when she visits her husband in his nursing home. After her husband dies, Daphne develops Alzheimer’s and Don visits her regularly when she in turn goes into the nursing home. He continues his visits long after she no longer recognises him. He may be awkward and perplexed by the nuances of social interaction, but he accepts Daphne and is a friend to her when no one else is.
The Daphne story is incidental to the book and I’ve never seen a reviewer comment on it, but I think it’s a lovely complement to Don Tillman’s story.